Poverty generally refers to a lack of basic necessities, resources and income, though its exact definition is often widely debated and measured in a variety of ways. A common way to measure poverty is to look at a family’s income and size, in order to determine whether it has enough income to support that family. This approach is employed by the Census Bureau, who each year identifies family size-specific income thresholds, below which, a family is considered to be living in poverty.
According to a 2019 Williams Institute analysis of Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data, which is the best available evidence on poverty in the LGBTQ+ community, LGBTQ+ adults in the United States are significantly more likely to be living in poverty than their straight and cisgender counterparts. Overall, more than one in five LGBTQ+ adultss (22%) are living in poverty, compared to an estimated 16% of their straight and cisgender counterparts. Among LGBTQ+ adults, poverty further differs across sexual orientation, gender, and race. Almost three in ten transgender adults (29%), as well as almost three in ten cisgender bisexual women (29%), are living in poverty, substantially more than cisgender bisexual men (19.5%) and cisgender lesbian women (17.9%). Cisgender gay men, in contrast, are less likely to be living in poverty than straight and cisgender adults, with 12% of cisgender gay men, compared with 13% of cisgender straight men, and 18% of cisgender straight women, living in poverty. When looking across race/ethnicity, poverty rates among LGBTQ+ people of color in the U.S. tower over those of other groups. For example, almost half of Latinx transgender adults (48%), as well as approximately four in ten Black transgender adults (39%), are living in poverty.
More recently, research conducted by the HRC Foundation found that full-time LGBTQ+ workers earn less than typical workers in the United States, with LGBTQ+ workers earning approximately 90 cents for every dollar earned by a typical worker, Black workers earning approximately 80 cents, trans men and nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid and two-spirit workers earning approximately 70 cents, and trans women earning approximately 60 cents.
However, income alone does not capture the full picture of LGBTQ+ people’s experiences with poverty and economic insecurity.
Poverty related to Un/Underemployment
One explanation for the lower wages reported by LGBTQ+ workers is higher rates of ‘underemployment,’ or employment in temporary/part-time positions, lower paid positions, as well as positions with limited or no benefits. HRC Foundation’s analysis of data from the 2018 GSS found that LGBTQ+ working people are also more likely to work in jobs that typically are associated with lower earnings and benefits. The top five industries where LGBTQ+ adults work–representing approximately 40% of all LGBTQ+ workers–are restaurants and food services (15%), hospitals (8%), K-12 education (7%), colleges and universities (7%) and retail (4%), which are some of the lowest paid sectors. This includes the almost 20% of LGBTQ+ workers in service industries such as restaurants and food services or retail, which are among the least likely to offer benefits such as medical coverage and paid leave.
LGBTQ+ poverty can also be linked to higher rates of unemployment seen among LGBTQ+ adults. Prior to the pandemic, nearly one in ten LGBTQ+ people were unemployed, approximately twice that of non-LGBTQ+ people. Unemployment has substantial implications for the ability to afford medical care, housing, food, and other basic necessities. But for those LGBTQ+ adults who are employed, many are in jobs where access to these resources remain out of reach.
More insidiously, higher rates of unemployment and poverty may also be linked to discrimination. Despite recent advances in equality, LGBTQ+ individuals and families across the country continue to experience discrimination across their lives including at work. According to an October 2020 study by the Center for American Progress, 36% of LGBTQ+ adults had experienced discrimination in the workplace within the last year. Discrimination like this leads to an increased risk for poverty and economic struggle among the most vulnerable in the LGBTQ community. For example, in the same study, among those who had experienced discrimination, 29% of LGBTQ+ people, 37% Black respondents, and more than half of transgender respondents stated this discrimination had significantly impacted their financial well-being.
Poverty related to lack of comprehensive employment benefits and the cost of parenting
When it comes to paid medical and family leave, the U.S. lags far behind other industrialized countries, being the only industrialized country that offers no paid leave to working adults. The lack of comprehensive paid leave is a universal experience across all walks of life in the United States. Existing evidence suggests that LGBTQ+ individuals and their families are uniquely impacted by these policies. In addition to the job sector related disparities in access to benefits mentioned above, HRC Foundation’s 2018 LGBTQ Paid Leave Survey found that fewer than half of LGBTQ+ respondents reported that their employer’s policies cover new parents of all genders equally, and only 49% said that employer policies are equally inclusive of the many ways families can welcome a child, including childbirth, adoption or foster care. This is especially critical for LGBTQ+ families who may have lower household incomes and cannot seek a wider range of options for their path to parenthood. Furthermore, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to work part-time than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, exempting them from the unpaid leave benefits already guaranteed to workers and families in the United States under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Implications of Poverty for LGBTQ+ Health and Wellbeing
The impact of poverty extends into all aspects of the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ Americans. As a result of higher rates of poverty and economic insecurity, previous research has found that LGBTQ+ people are at increased risk for food insecurity, or an inability to afford food, as well as homlessness and housing insecurity. As a result of higher rates of unemployment, underemployment in industries with lower pay and/or positions with fewer benefits, LGBTQ+ people are more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to lack health coverage or the monetary resources to visit a doctor. According to HRC Foundation’s analysis of the BRFSS, 17% of LGBTQ+ adults do not have any kind of health insurance coverage, compared to 12% of non-LGBTQ+ adults. Furthermore, 23% of LGBTQ+ adults of color, 22% of transgender adults, and 32% of transgender adults of color have no form of health coverage. In addition, one in five LGBTQ+ adults have not seen a doctor when needed because they could not afford it. Black LGBTQ+ adults (23%), Latinx LGBTQ+ adults (24%), and all transgender women (29%) are most likely to have avoided going to the doctor because of costs.
Unfortunately, recent research conducted by the HRC Foundation suggests that many of these economic disparities have only worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic: For example, research conducted by HRC Foundation found that the number of LGBTQ people who were unemployed reached record highs (22%) in the early months of 2022 as the pandemic’s continued impact on LGBTQ+ workers and families deepened. LGBTQ+ adults were more likely than their straight and cisgender peers to see their hours cut at work, with job loss and wage/hour cuts felt most accuately by LGBTQ+ people of color and transgender men and women.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened existing factors contributing to poverty in the LGBTQ+ community. These include unemployment and underemployment, lack of comprehensive paid leave, inadequate childcare policies and lack of adequate health coverage. The Human Rights Campaign will continue tracking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on economic well-being of the LGBTQ+ community.