LGBT Workers Forced to Play By Different Rules; Poverty Rates High

By Jodie Levin-Epstein and Lily Jamaludin

LGBT rights in the United States have seen increased progress in the past several years. Twelve states have legalized same-sex marriage, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been repealed, and a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is currently before the Supreme Court.

Yet, many structural inequalities remain. Bias, lack of workplace benefits, and higher taxes place LGBT workers at a unique economic disadvantage. In 29 states, for example, it is still legal to deny individuals employment based on sexual orientation. In 38 states, it is legal to do so based on gender identity and expression.

In recent weeks, there has been important attention given to issues affecting the economic wellbeing of LGBT.  According to “New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community,” a new report from the Williams Institute, employment discrimination can be a key feature of economic status, which is why LGBT are more vulnerable to being poor than heterosexuals.

The report shows that households led by female same-sex couples are 3.4 percentage points more likely to be poor and male same-sex couples are 1.4 percentage points more likely to be poor, when compared to opposite-sex married couples. In making its analysis, the Institute established a number of key constants, including: education level, employment, age, race, ethnicity, fluency in English, disability status of both members of the couple, state and metropolitan status where the couple resides, and the number of children and adults in the household.

The report refutes the myth of gay affluence. “What people think they know is that gay people are pretty well-off economically. We don’t see poor LGBT people on television, we don’t see them in movies, we don’t see articles about them when discussions about marriage show up in the newspaper,” stated M.V. Lee Badgett, research director for the Williams Institute, in an interview with NBC News.

Rather, the lack of explicit employment protections for LGBT workers makes it harder for them to find and secure jobs, which has clear implications for their economic wellbeing. Further, under state or federal law, it is often impossible for LGBT families to qualify for family benefits. This prevents families headed by same-sex couples from accessing family health insurance, unpaid family and medical leave, spousal retirement benefits, the ability to file a federal tax return as a married couple, and the ability to sponsor families for immigration.

The severe impact of this lack of protections is demonstrated in “A Broken Bargain,” a new study co-published by the Center for American Progress (CAP), Movement Advancement Project, and Human Rights Campaign on the experience of LGBT workers.  The study reports that:

  • 17 percent of same-sex couples have only one spouse or partner covered by health insurance, compared to just 8 percent of opposite-sex couples;
  • Between 8 percent and 17 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people report being unfairly fired or denied employment, and between 13 percent and 47 percent of transgender workers report being unfairly denied employment; and
  • The inability to file a federal tax return as a married couple costs an LGBT family $2,902 in additional taxes.

At a CAP event announcing the release of a “A Broken Bargain” on June 4, Senator Jeff Merkley discussed his recently-proposed bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

If work is the best way for families to avoid poverty, all workers, including LGBT workers, should be free from discrimination; and where work pays inadequately, all workers, including LGBT workers, should be able to access work supports.