Measuring Poverty's Impact on the LGBT Community

Nov 14, 2014

There are 45.3 million Americans living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty affects people from all walks of life, in all areas of the country, but according to several studies, people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender are hit by poverty more often than others.

“I struggle every day,” said Lynn, who lives just outside Pittsburgh. She didn’t want to use her last name. Lynn identifies as lesbian, and she doesn’t work because of a disability. Lynn is also diabetic and living on a very fixed income.

“I’m on $4,000 of medication a month,” she said. “If it weren’t for the food bank, I don’t know how I’d eat the way I need to eat. I simply can’t afford it.”

Lynn’s circumstances may be unique, but her situation is not. Of people who identify somewhere on the LGBTQIA spectrum, some 30 percent are struggling with poverty. The reasons vary, but in Pennsylvania, one of most often cited reasons is the lack of a statewide anti-discrimination policy that covers sexual orientation and gender identity.

Lynn said in her working days, she experienced what that lack of protection can mean, “they made it very clear how when somebody comes in and they have the perception of being gay, they’ll find a reason not to hire that person.”

Higher Unemployment for LGBTQIA community

The unemployment rate is higher for gays and lesbians than for heterosexuals, and 7.6 percent of lesbian couples live in poverty compared to 5.7 percent of married heterosexual couples. That’s according to the American Community Survey from UCLA’s Williams Institute. When you throw in other factors such as race and gender identity, the rate can be even higher. The survey found African American same-sex couples have poverty rates more than twice that of heterosexual, married African Americans. And for people who identify as transgender? It’s even worse.

“A lot of times, my trans sisters and brothers cannot get employment because they haven’t changed their ID yet, there’s a lot of questions, people don’t know how to handle them, and while there are wonderful organizations and corporations that do have these protections – they are few and far between and not always hiring,” said Lyndsey Sickler, director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh.

Transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed as cisgender people and four times as likely to have an annual household income under $10,000, according the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. And once you’re living in poverty, it can be hard to get ahead.

“How are you supposed to run a race and expect to win when you have cinder blocks tied to your ankles?” Sickler said.

Getting Out of Poverty a Daunting Task

It’s clear not everyone sees it that way — message boards and comment sections of articles relating to poverty are often filled with people saying “just get a better job” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” or “Go back to school!”

But Sickler said it’s not that easy for people who identify as LGBTQIA.

“When you’re so used to being judged or fearing of that judgment, it makes you not want to try, it almost becomes a disability,” said Sickler.

That opinion is shared by Michael David Battle, founder and director of the Garden of Peace Project, a community outreach organization. He said day-to-day bare minimum survival is often a challenge, adding in finding a job can seem even harder.

“When you walk out of your house and you decide to go apply for that job, you have to get on a bus, you have to get a ride, you have to figure out how to get there, then once you get there you’re going to get mis-gendered, somebody’s going to call you an ‘it’, maybe the person interviewing you calls you a ‘he/she’ they’re laughing because maybe your name doesn’t match your presentation,” said Battle.

Lack of Access to Services

There are numerous social services available for those living in poverty, but accessing those services can come with a stigma — and if you already have a stigma attached to you because your sexual orientation, gender identity or gender presentation — it can be hard.

“I think poverty is multi-dimensional, and this is not a singular community … so I think it is affected in a unique way, however there is a multitude of identities within the LGBT community,” said Jess Netto, a linkage to care specialist with Community Human Services Corporation.

And a continuing problem is that social service providers sometimes are not trained to deal with the LGBTQIA community.

“We have a system that isn’t set up to serve their unique needs,” said Netto.

For instance, she said, homeless shelters are arranged by sex assigned at birth, so it can be hard for a transgender person to access shelter, even the very limited space available for someone who is transgender is often uncomfortably isolated.

“I would just say in general there’s a lack of competent services being performed and therefore a lack of access to services for the transgender community and LGBT community,” she said.  

Battle agrees, saying LGBTQIA people are practically set up to fail.

“We have a system that was set up by white cis-folks, hetero-normative folks, and it still benefits those folks greatly," Battle said. "Who are the last people we are thinking about? The last people are the LGBTQIA community folks, we are the last people."

What the Future Holds

But things are improving, albeit slowly. The GLCC’s Sickler said there are many services provided through the center, including a clothes and toiletry closet, and she said those services are open to everyone, not just those who identify as LGBTQIA. Plus, the center is always working with other groups to spread the word and educate.

“Just by letting them know person by person, group by group, that we’re here,” Sickler said.

And having conversations about poverty can help open doors. Battle said it’s such a big topic and affects everyone differently.

“Poverty impacts education, it impacts employment, it impacts your housing, it impacts your shelter, so impacts all of those things," he said. "At the root of it we’re talking about poverty, that really is the issue."

So helping people lift themselves out of poverty in part becomes a matter of figuring out individual circumstances and navigating a difficult system.

“There is a complete lack of understanding and a lot of vehement cruelty,” said Lynn.  

And in the case of Lynn, she tries to stay optimistic, but doesn’t see her circumstances changing any time soon, especially because of her disability.

“It is depressing … it is absolutely depressing," she said, "and it is a full-time job to live with no job.” 

Lynn cites the overturning of Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban as one step toward progress for the LGBTQIA community. But Sickler and Netto say that while so much attention is on the fight for marriage equality, more attention needs to be paid to economic equality and ensuring all people have fair and equal access to jobs and safety net services.