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Same-Sex Couples Still More Likely to be Poor, Study Finds

by Megan Barnes
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Sunday Jun 30, 2013
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Gay and lesbian couples are more likely to live in poverty than straight couples, even after the recession, according to a new study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The findings come four years after the institute put out an unprecedented study looking at poverty in the LGB community. This time around, researchers examined the issue post-recession and delved deeper into the "why," specifically considering whether or not workplace discrimination laws factor into socioeconomic status.

The findings? Not only did same-sex couples still fare worse than straight couples after the recession, but workplace nondiscrimination laws didn’t appear to have an effect; that’s because although gays and lesbians did better in states with such laws, so did everyone else.

Gender, race, education level and geography proved to be significant factors. Couples with two female earners, for example, who tend to make lower wages than men, are already at a significant disadvantage -- 7.6% of lesbian couples live in poverty, versus 5.7% of heterosexual married couples.

The study also found that 14.1 percent of lesbian couples receive food stamps, versus 7.7% of gay male couples and 6.5% of opposite-sex couples. African-American same-sex couples had a poverty rate more than twice that of straight African-American couples, and children of same-sex couples had higher rates of poverty than children of straight married couples. Same-sex couples with less education and living in rural areas also had higher rates of poverty.

Williams Institute Research Director M.V. Lee Badgett said while there are still many unanswered questions, the study highlights an under-acknowledged segment of the LGBT community: the poor.

"This makes poverty an LGBT issue in my mind," she said. "There’s a group in our community that’s often invisible: people living in poverty. They’re there, and just because we don’t see them or don’t know someone living below the poverty line, doesn’t mean they don’t exist."

She said pinning down exactly what about sexual orientation impacts poverty rates isn’t clear.

"That’s the big question and I think we’re still looking for the answer," she said. "There are some things we know can reduce income, like employment discrimination, not having the right to marry in some situations, or not having marriage recognized. Those things might matter because it reduces the ability to get social security benefits, for example."

The study also contradicts the way gay couples are portrayed on sitcoms. While shows like "Modern Family" and "The New Normal" (now canceled) show affluent gay couples, the statistics show otherwise. That’s not to say straight couples aren’t portrayed unrealistically either, but does the portrayal of affluence play into stereotypes?

Badgett believes it is partly the entertainment industry’s focus on the upper middle class and wealthy.

"The most visible gay people are people like Ellen Degeneres or Anderson Cooper; people who are successful and have a lot of money. Those people become the image the average American has, and soon you have a stereotype."

What’s dangerous about this, she said, is that these stereotypes can be used against the LGBT community.

"We’ve seen conservatives who will take the stereotype, hold it up and say gay people aren’t a disadvantaged minority; that they’ll hire a lawyer if they can’t get married. The stereotype gets propagated in policy debate."

Rich Ferraro, spokesman of the media watchdog GLAAD, said while there are more gay couples making primetime television, shows that portray more realistic couples are important.

"GLAAD encourages the media to show real and diverse portrayals of LGBT characters, including people of all income levels," he said. "That being said, scripted television tends to largely portray affluent individuals, which is why it’s important when shows such as ABC Family’s ’The Fosters’ and Showtime’s ’Shameless’ shine a light on lesbian and gay characters who are not as affluent and do sometimes struggle to make ends meet."

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com

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