“Unveiling the Data Gap” event highlights need for better economic data on LGBTQ+ individuals

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On June 26, The Brookings Center for Economic Security and Opportunity (CESO) hosted an event where experts discussed the socioeconomic well-being of the LGBTQ+ community and gaps in data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) information within federal economic surveys.

First, Tara Watson, Director of CESO, presented findings from her report with Beyond Deng. The share of people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual has sharply increased over the last ten years and this increase is especially pronounced among younger cohorts. However, many large federal surveys used to estimate socioeconomic well-being, like the American Community Survey (ACS), do not adequately collect SOGI information, causing misleading and biased estimates of the size of the LGB population and their economic well-being.

After Watson’s presentation, three experts in LGBTQ+ research and advocacy were given an opportunity to briefly present some of their work, followed by a discussion moderated by Hansi Lo Wang, NPR Correspondent. The panelists discussed what we have learned with the existing data, the limitations of it, and what we can do to better collect SOGI information.

What we know: LGBTQ+ socioeconomic well-being

Despite limitations in data availability, researchers have still studied the socioeconomic well-being of the LGBTQ+ population through qualitative studies, experiments, and the existing data.

Christopher (Kitt) Carpenter, founder and director of the Vanderbilt LGBTQ+ Policy Lab, shared that gay men earn significantly less than straight men while lesbian women earn roughly 5-10 percent more than straight women. Despite gains in attitudes toward LGBTQ+ individuals, there is little evidence that these trends have been improving over time. The gay male wage penalty has remained consistent over the last 20 years and the earnings premium for lesbians is falling. Additionally, Carpenter’s findings show that non-cisgender individuals, especially transgender women, are less likely to be employed, have less earnings, and are more food insecure than similar cisgender people.

In the discussion, Carpenter addressed the myth that LGBTQ+ people are more financially well-off than the general population. The idea is conflated with the dual-income no kids (DINK) hypothesis that suggests same-gender couples are financially better off. However, this is mainly true for same-gender male couples. Even so, the negative economic outcomes for sexual minorities Carpenter presented suggest that data interpretation should be contextualized until more representative data is collected.

Following Carpenter’s presentation, Bianca D.M. Wilson, Senior Scholar of Public Policy at the Williams Institute at UCLA, also noted that LGBT communities in the U.S. experience greater rates of poverty than cisgender, heterosexual people. She offered qualitative evidence which indicated anti-LGBTQ+ bias was a factor in individuals’ experiences of poverty. She highlighted uniquely relevant factors that were related to particular SOGI groups’ experiences of poverty, including managing HIV among cisgender gay men, parenting among transgender men and queer women, and gender policing and discrimination among nonbinary and transgender individuals. She also explained that childhood poverty was a major pathway to adult poverty. For individuals who did not grow up in poverty, their membership in the LGBTQ+ community had a bigger role in the onset into poverty, likely due to loss of family financial support.

Wilson finally addressed the importance of intersecting race with sexual orientation and gender identity in economic analysis. Individuals who are both racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ population are more likely to be low income, food insecure, and unemployed than white LGBTQ+ people. Therefore, understanding the socioeconomic well-being of the LGBTQ+ population also requires considering the distinct experiences of LGBTQ+ people of color.

Still significant gaps: the data issue

The conversation also focused on data collection methods used in federal surveys typically used to measure socioeconomic well-being.

Meghan Maury, senior official at the Department of Commerce, discussed evidence-building efforts by the federal government to improve policymaking for LGBTQ+ populations.  New legislation and administrative efforts from the Biden administration, including Executive Order 14075 and the Federal Evidence Agenda on LGBTQI+ Equity, contains provisions to increase SOGI data availability.

Maury explained that as part of this agenda, their team identified what questions the government needed to answer to better serve LGBTQI+ communities. These questions include “what types and levels of wealth or assets are LGBTQI+ people able to build at different stages of their life course compared to non-LGBTQI+ people?” and “how well do LGBTQI+ populations understand the federal programs and benefits they are eligible for and how to access them?” Now, they have asked government agencies to identify which questions are most relevant to their work and how they will collect data to answer these questions. They said that this data collection was imperative to making more equitable policy, opining that better data can lead to better and more appropriate policy interventions for LGBTQ+ populations.

The panelists then discussed the major concerns and the appropriate practices to collect SOGI information from federal surveys. First, they addressed the concern of data sensitivity when faced with personal questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. Wang mentioned that contrary to these concerns, studies have shown that people do not find SOGI questions difficult to answer for themselves or for others in the household. Wilson also noted that response rates for SOGI measures were sometimes higher than other key identifying variables such as income, employment, and race.

A similar concern was related to data privacy, especially in vulnerable settings or certain states that may weaponize personal information against respondents. Wilson acknowledged the need to consider these threats carefully, but also emphasized that data sensitivity should not hinder agencies from asking SOGI questions. In fact, within vulnerable settings such as foster care systems, states often collect far more sensitive information about the respondent. Meghan Maury, who previously served on the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations, reinforced that federally collected survey data is strongly protected under law and is managed by agency-specific committees that ensure SOGI and other private data are kept safe.

The concerns listed have often been attributed to the exclusion of SOGI measures from federal surveys.However, panelists agreed that a growing number of studies offer recommendations for practices that address these issues, so it is no longer appropriate for institutions to claim illiteracy or feign concern on this topic. Some of these reports, as suggested by Maury, include the and work conducted by the . Wilson referred to a study conducted by the that also considers how intersex individuals can be measured. Additionally, Carpenter noted that for countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, their censuses contain direct questions about transgender and/or intersex identity, which the United States can look towards and follow.

Ultimately, filling the data gap helps researchers discover mechanisms on a range of socioeconomic outcomes and helps policymakers create appropriate legislation that targets them. For instance,  Carpenter alluded to the 2020 Supreme Court ruling that added federal employment protection on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Policies like these then open economic questions—such as about employment differences based on LGBTQ+ status—that we can only answer in surveys that collect other economic information. Maury also pushed on improving data collection on other measures such as housing instability, homelessness, and incarceration to better understand the relationship between SOGI and these other measures.

A data explosion

To close, Carpenter said he anticipated a data explosion in the future as advocacy for SOGI collection grows stronger. He encouraged young researchers to utilize this soon-to-be-available data to address socioeconomic questions and use data in ways that opens new pathways for research and interpreting broader trends. As Wilson also commented during the discussion, it is important for researchers to think about how and why socioeconomic disparities occur within the LGBTQ+ community. Maury expressed excitement for partnering new data with policymaking, saying “data does not change lives, but if we put data to work it can help us make better policy decisions that we hope can advance equity.”

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The Brookings Institution is financed through the support of a diverse array of foundations, corporations, governments, individuals, as well as an endowment. A list of donors can be found in our annual reports published online here. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions in this report are solely those of its author(s) and are not influenced by any donation.

  • Footnotes
    1. LGBTQ+ refers to people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning. Different variations of the acronym are used throughout this summary to reflect the usage and scope of the research described.
    2. LGBTQI+ refers to the people who identify LGBTQ+, as well as people who identify as intersex. The work Maury is discussing uses this acronym as opposed to other variations.