How Poverty Impacts LGBTQIA+ People In the U.S.

June is LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, one of the world’s most celebrated identity-based awareness campaigns. This month, billions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer/non-binary, intersex, asexual/aromantic, and ​other queer and allied people globally salute the resilience of individuals and families who face some of the highest hurdles in escaping poverty. 

For 25 years, Circles USA has built community to end poverty by connecting with the people most in need, meeting them where they live, and trusting them to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. As CUSA celebrates Pride 2024, we also bring awareness to the pressing fact that—particularly where queer identity intersects with other factors in economic oppression, like race, gender, generational family poverty, or geographic location—LGBTQIA+ people in the U.S. and Canada face the same socioeconomic challenges that straight residents face, with more obstacles to boot.

Unraveling the Myth of Gay Affluence

According to a 2021 University of Wisconsin–Madison Institute for Research on Poverty study, people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans “have higher rates of poverty compared to cis [from cisgender, meaning “identifying with the gender assigned to one at birth”] heterosexual people, about 22% to 16% respectively.” Further, the study found that “[r]ates of poverty for LGBT people of color are close to, or higher than, those for cis straight people of their own racial or ethnic group, and are notably higher than for White people, whether straight or LGBT.”

Despite this outlook, the myth of “gay affluence” persists. The stereotype that gay Americans dominate a higher tax bracket remains a barrier to real prosperity for many. Yet age, which many associate with increased earning power and career advancement, is one more factor that may negatively impact queer families’ economic growth.

A 2020 study that compared LGBTQIA+ Baby Boomers to their Millennial counterparts (who came of age post-1980s AIDS epidemic) found that the experiences of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] and/or low income [people] “complicates the ‘it gets better’ narrative of LGBTQ life in the United States. For low-income LGBTQ people,” the study continued, “coming out is associated with more stress and health problems compared to LGBTQ people with higher incomes (McGarrity & Huebner, 2013).”

Nor are LGBTQIA+ youth safe from these stressors. The UCLA School of Law Williams Institute published a report connecting childhood poverty to increased risk of low income struggles for adults. “Childhood poverty,” the researchers found, “is a key pathway into adult poverty among LGBTQ people… For those who did not report experiencing childhood poverty, other starting points of adult economic insecurity were as follows:

  • Anti-LGBT bias within families and employment settings;
  • Becoming a parent young without partner, familial and/or community support;
  • Mental health issues; and
  • Substance use issues.”

Eventually, it concluded, “all participants’ pathways converge into a constellation of interlocking factors and indicators of economic insecurity—lower educational attainment, low wage jobs, psychological stress, parenting challenges, multiple forms of structural and interpersonal oppression (anti-LGBT bias, racism, xenophobia, sexism), and/or barriers to adequate services.”

Recent research into the frequencies and patterns of adverse childhood events in LGBTQ+ youth have found, among other worrying outcomes:

  • LGBTQ + youth report strikingly high rates of adverse childhood events (ACEs);
  • Family dysfunction and emotional abuse are prevalent in the lives of LGBTQ + youth;
  • Trauma exposure for LGBTQ + youth includes ACEs and identity-based minority stress; and 
  • LGBTQ + youth experience levels of childhood adversity that disrupts wellbeing.”

Many of these factors will sound familiar to people who have taken Poverty Solutions Group’s Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE) Simulation, an immersive simulation that reveals the hourly challenges of navigating family and work life while in poverty. Attendees of the weekly chapter meeting at last year’s National Leadership Conference also had the opportunity to review their ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) index, a measure of the harms “which occur when a child experiences a traumatic event or environmental factors that threaten their sense of safety, stability, and bonding.” [Source]

Relational Poverty and Big View Change

One 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine stressed the importance of understanding something called relational poverty. Relational poverty describes “the social, economic, and political relationships between those in poverty and those in relative positions of power and influence [emphasis added].” That is, it examines gaps and opportunities in building social capital among people of different social and economic classes, asking: How do the choices of the wealthy affect the well-being of those in poverty? 

“Instead of focusing on the material conditions of impoverished groups exclusively,” researchers explained, relational poverty analysis focuses on “actors involved in creating and maintaining material disparities, including middle class professionals, policy makers, and the wealthy entrepreneurial elite, as potential targets of intervention (Piven, 2006).”

In Circles USA’s methodology, such interventions often take the form of intentional friendships across race, economic class, gender and sexuality; Big View Team work and policy platform that get at root causes of socioeconomic disparities; advocating and campaigning for nonpartisan political solutions to problems which impact whole communities, starting with the closest to the challenge; and community-based collaborations with employers to support low-income workers through the ups and downs of stabilization, readiness, and advancement—including LGBTQIA+ individuals who face greater rates of identity-based discrimination in the workplace and outside of it.

“Circles USA is committed to creating communities where all people can thrive,” says executive director Kamatara Johnson. “All means all. And we know that LGBTQIA+ folx are some of the most impacted community members we serve. We look forward to the day where this struggle no longer exists!”

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