When gays and lesbians are featured in popular culture, what do we see? White, wealthy women who host talk shows or affluent men doting on their kids — like Mitchell and Cameron from "Modern Family." So it's no wonder that the conventional wisdom is that gay people in America have tons of money and fewer economic struggles than the rest of the population.
But the truth is significantly different.
"I think people are surprised there are any poor gay people," says M.V. Lee Badgett, professor of economics and research director for The Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA Law School that researches sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. "This 'myth of gay affluence' has been around for a long time. It gets in the way of people even imagining that LGBT people can be poor."
On Monday, the Williams Institute will release a detailed study about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and their real economic status. Drawing on recent data from four different sources, the report finds a sexual orientation "poverty gap": LGBT Americans are more likely to be poor than heterosexuals, with African-Americans and women particularly vulnerable.
Badgett spoke with NBC News about the results of the study, "The Gay Affluence Myth: New Research on LGBT Poverty."
Let's start with a very basic question: Why measure LGBT poverty at all?
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. But it doesn't mean they're not there. It just means we haven't looked for them. And we haven't looked for them because we think they're not there.
The government measures poverty for a lot of other groups. What are some of the challenges and difficulties in trying to measure poverty among the LGBT population?
The biggest issue is that LGBT people are invisible in most big surveys. The biggest surveys that the Census Bureau does have asked no questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. Every survey has questions about race, about marital status, about disability, about ethnicity, about whether people have kids – all these things that matter in people's lives and influence people's vulnerability to poverty – but they don't ask whether you're lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in most surveys. They have started asking about household relationships in ways that allow us to identify people who are living with an unmarried partner of the same sex. That's created a big statistical revolution in terms of LGBT research but there still are a lot of people who are left out.
Now to some of the conclusions: You find a "gay poverty gap" in America, especially for certain subgroups of gay people.
Yes. There are lots of people in same-sex couples who are poor, and that is an important takeaway. The gap is clear in the raw data for some of these comparisons. For example, for lesbians, if you just look at the poverty rate for women in same-sex couples (7.6 percent), it's higher than the poverty rate for women in different-sex couples (5.7 percent). For gay men, it's a little more complicated a story, and race plays a big part. The economic status of lesbians is quite different and often more vulnerable compared to men. It's a reminder of just how much of an important role gender still plays in determining people's economic outcome.
Another conclusion is that children of LGB parents are especially vulnerable to poverty. With a poverty rate of roughly 20 percent among children living with gay parents, they are almost twice as likely to be poor as in married opposite-sex couple households. The gap is even bigger for children living with African-American same sex-couples. Why is that?