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Despite Images Of Affluence, LGBT Poverty High


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Here in the U.S., June is known as gay and lesbian pride month, recognizing the contributions and concerns of LGBT people in this country. Later, we'll talk with two people on the cutting edge of what's become one of the markers of LGBT progress. They are the authors of a new book about how to photograph same-sex weddings. There are some interesting similarities and differences that might surprise you.

But first, speaking of weddings, here's a clip from a recent episode of Saturday Night Live.


BILL HADER: That's why I use Xanax for Gay Summer Weddings.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Because your gay friends have it all figured out and you don't.


CECILY STRONG: At my wedding, we gave guests Cheez-Its and a mini bottle of water. Keith and William gave us two tickets to Italy and $40,000.


MARTIN: And if you saw this skit then you know it's playing off what seems to be the widely held idea that gay couples are better off than most couples. Now though, there's a new study from the Williams Institute that shows that poverty rates are actually higher for same-sex couples than for straight couples. We wanted to hear more about that, so we've called Professor Lee Badgett. She's the research director at the Williams Institute. That's a research institute at UCLA Law School that focuses on LGBT issues. She's also an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And she's with us now from member station New England Public Radio. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LEE BADGETT: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: So is the overall picture here that same-sex couples are more likely to be poor than straight couples?

BADGETT: Yes, we do see that same-sex couples are much more likely to be poor. And even when we look at people who are not in same-sex couples - we have some data on lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals - we also see that they're more likely to be poor.

MARTIN: Let's focus on couples, though, because I think it's understood that marriage, being a couple is often kind of a bulwark against poverty, right, or a hedge against poverty, because you have two incomes to draw from when, sort of, times get tough. Are there certain same-sex couples that are more likely to be poor? For example, are lesbians more likely to be poor than men? Are African-Americans more likely to be poor than white couples?

BADGETT: We definitely see some subgroups who are more likely to be poor and you hit on two of them. Lesbian couples, in particular, are combining two women's incomes instead of a man and woman's income and that means that they will just have lower-than-average incomes in general. So they are more likely to be poor. We do see that African-Americans are more likely to be poor than are married different-sex African-American couples but they're also more likely to be poor than white same-sex couples. So they seem to get a double whammy.

MARTIN: What about white gay male couples?

BADGETT: They seem to be doing pretty well when you just look at their overall poverty rate. So we wanted to dig a little bit deeper and we compared white gay men and African-American gay male couples, all the different kinds of couples and tried to hold constant or to take into account all of the things that influence people's poverty rates. So they have higher levels of education, they're less likely to have kids, those are things that tend to protect people from poverty. But once we were comparing apples to apples, we found that the gay male couples are more likely to be poor.

MARTIN: Any idea why that is?

BADGETT: There are a couple of possibilities. One that I think you have to think hard about is the fact that there is likely to be discrimination in the workplace against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. And discrimination usually goes along with lower earnings and we do see that for gay and bisexual men, in particular, in the labor force. It also comes with a higher likelihood of losing your job and that's a big predictor of poverty. So I think that's likely to be one of the biggest factors driving these differences.

MARTIN: Why don't we wheel it around, though, just referencing that Saturday Night Live skit. I mean, part of the reason that it's funny is that people think it's true, right? So why is there this image of LGBT couples being not just okay, but really well off?

BADGETT: Well, that clip that you played was one great example about why. In the media, those are the people that you see. Those are the gay and lesbian people you see. They have good jobs. They have nice homes. There have, over the last couple of decades, been other people pushing this image. People who oppose civil rights laws for gay and lesbian people often will point to that image and say, hey, you know, gay people aren't a real minority, they're doing really well.

And even in the gay community itself, sometimes there are people who point to that image to say, hey, we're a great marketing niche, you should have your company target our population. So there are lots of different people trying to promote that image, both intentionally and unintentionally.

MARTIN: You think part of it is that the people who tend to be most visible, at least, maybe, let's just say in the forward flanks, right, of the gay community in terms of people who are visible - they tend to be, what, artists or people who are very successful businesspeople? Is that it?

BADGETT: Exactly, yeah, big actors, big name actors, the Neil Patrick Harris, you know, who was just on the Tony's last night. I mean, if that's your image, if you don't know any other gay or lesbian people and you're thinking, who pops into my head when I think of that term, it's likely to be those people who are out in front of the media - Tammy Baldwin in the Senate - you know, people who look powerful and who look like they're doing pretty well for themselves. And they are, but they're just not typical of the whole gay and lesbian population.

MARTIN: That's what I wanted to ask you, so why do you think this new information matters? Why do you think it's important to pay attention to? Because there's a lot of talk now about, you know, the whole question of positive stereotypes versus negative stereotypes. Some people feel that positive stereotypes aren't so bad because if it causes people to look at you with a little bit more respect, maybe, than they would otherwise, what's so terrible? So why do you think this information is important?

BADGETT: Well, stereotypes definitely can cut both ways. And I think, in this case, what looks like a positive stereotype can really hold back a discussion about public policy, about the fact that we don't have any kind of federal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And I think that's one place where the stereotype gets in the way of an important discussion. And then, you know, we're still grappling with issues around poverty and, you know, where there's a big debate about funding for food stamps, for instance. And that - I think what we see in this report is that that's a gay issue, too, just like employment discrimination.

So our hope is that when people in the gay community are thinking about poverty issues, they're thinking, yeah, this is important for us, too. And when people in the poverty world are thinking, you know, who are our clients, that they're also recognizing that they have same-sex couples and gay and lesbian people and bisexual people and transgender people in their clientele and they're trying to make sure that their services are welcoming to those folks, as well.

MARTIN: That was Lee Badgett. She is the research director at the Williams Institute. And she's also economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Professor Badgett, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BADGETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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