The nation's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community has a lot to celebrate during June's "Pride Month," like the growing number of state governments that have made same-sex marriage legal, along with a majority of the American public favoring gay marriage. But despite all of the progress, a new study shows that poverty is a continuing challenge for the nation's LGBT community, and that women face the greatest challenge.
The analysis of data from four different datasets finds that lesbian couples have a 7.6 percent poverty rate, higher than the 5.7 percent rate for married heterosexual couples and the 4.3 percent for coupled gay men.
The study also suggests that sexual-orientation-based poverty gaps persist among individuals, with LGBT men and women facing higher poverty rates than their heterosexual counterparts, as shown in the chart above. However, not all of those figures are statistically significant, meaning that there may not be a meaningful difference between figures for the LGBT and non-LGBT communities.
A large part of the gap between lesbian couples and other couples is due to the gender wage gap, says M.V. Lee Badgett, a co-author of the study and research director at the UCLA Law School's Williams Institute, a think tank that conducts research on legal matters surrounding gender and sexual orientation.
"That [wage gap] is a big factor that makes it challenging for lesbians in general, but especially lesbians in couples," she says. "You put two women together, and they will have lower household income than two men or a man and a woman."
It's not just LGBT women at risk for poverty. LGBT men also have a significantly higher poverty rate (20.1 percent) than non-LGBT men (13.4 percent), according to Gallup data. In addition, the study finds that when controlling for factors that contribute to poverty, like age, race and education level, gay male couples have a higher poverty rate than heterosexual married couples, by 1.4 percentage points.
Plenty of factors other than gender play a part in poverty. The study finds that African-American same-sex couples have a poverty rate more than twice that of heterosexual married African-American couples. Same-sex black male couples have a poverty rate of nearly 19 percent, with a poverty rate of nearly 18 percent for same-sex black female couples, compared to just 8 percent for married heterosexual couples.
Poverty not only affects those couples but their children as well. Over half – 52.3 percent – of children of gay black male couples live under the poverty line, compared to just over 15 percent for children of married heterosexual black couples. That astoundingly high rate is a result of "a confluence of racial disadvantages and the sexual orientation disadvantage," says Badgett.
"It looks like that comes together in a very big and disturbing way for African American same-sex couples," she says.
While the study might suggest that most LGBT Americans, particularly women, face economic disadvantages compared to heterosexuals, the reality is more complex. Lesbian couples may have higher poverty levels than heterosexual couples, but there is also evidence that lesbians earn more than straight women. Though there are several theories as to why that is, Badgett points out that often, these women are less likely to have children than married straight women, meaning they work more hours and do not face the career interruptions that maternity can cause.
However, as same-sex couples increasingly raise children, the gap between lesbian and straight women may diminish, she adds.
"If you look at female same-sex couples, the one in the workforce looks like she does pretty well, but the one who is the secondary earner or stays at home completely does take a hit for being a parent," Badgett says.