The Truth About Gays and Money

Mitchell and Cameron from ABC's "Modern Family"
Source: ABC
Mitchell and Cameron from ABC's "Modern Family"

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?

It's always shocking to me to see these figures for kids, and the higher poverty rates for the households that have kids. The burden that seems to happen for African-American same-sex couples and their kids is very troubling. It could very well be because of where they live. A lot of those families live in areas with high poverty rates, in the South in particular. African-American people in same-sex couples earn less than white people in same-sex couples, and they earn less than married different sex couples across the board. Those are the things I think are most likely to explain it.

The issue of kids comes up all the time, and we do worry that it will be seen that same-sex couples aren't good parents, aren't fit parents, or that African-American same-sex couples aren't good parents or fit parents. The economic situations that people find themselves in don't reflect their fitness at being parents. It just reflects how hard it is for them to raise their kids and shows there's a need for support, including the right to marry and to strengthen their family's economic situation or to make it more secure by being able to tap into all the benefits that come with marriage.

The government safety net – cash welfare and food stamps in particular – seems to play a bigger role for LGB poor people and couples than for other poor Americans, according to your research. Does this suggest that the safety net is particularly hospitable to LGB people?

It's probably just the opposite. LGBT people and their families have problems fitting into definitions of family and the regulations, so they may not get a very supportive reception when they come and try to sign up for benefits.

We think there's something else going on. It could be they are more likely to need the benefits – they may be even more poor than we can see in our data – or it could be that they're seen as more eligible, because [in most states] they can't marry. The government may not recognize their relationships when they come in to apply for these benefits. That means that if the spouse with lower income or lower assets applies, they don't have to [consider] the other person's income and assets, so they're more likely to be eligible for those benefits.

Do your findings suggest that policymakers need to adjust their approach to preventing poverty, or to helping people gays and lesbians get out of poverty?

Yes. Making sure that the systems are welcoming and understanding of the life situations of LGBT people is very important. If they feel like their relationships are going to be looked down upon or they're stigmatized in some other way, they might need those benefits but be unwilling to go in and apply for them.

The findings also suggest that there are other kinds of things to prevent poverty that need to be addressed. For instance, we don't have any protection against discrimination against LGBT people at the federal level. Only 21 states outlaw discrimination for sexual orientation and 16 states for gender identity. People who lose jobs because of discrimination are very likely to run into problems with poverty. If they don't have incomes, they will be a whole lot poorer. So, nondiscrimination laws are very important.

Also, marriage is designed to give people a framework for living their economic lives together as well as their family lives, and when people in same-sex couples don't have access to that framework, then they are automatically deprived of certain kinds of economic supports. Not having the right to marry makes people more economically vulnerable as well.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

-- By Barbara Raab, Senior Producer, NBC News