By the numbers (part 1): A new survey examines the financial health of LGBTQ+ people

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According to the Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement and Research (CLEAR), LGBTQ+ people in the United States face a number of economic and financial disparities compared to their straight peers, often driven or exacerbated by experiences of discrimination.

Existing research shows that LGBTQ+ people face consistently higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, unemployment and job discrimination, among other disparities. These inequities are often even worse for transgender people and people of color.

Yet a historical lack of data collection among these groups by the government and other organizations has contributed to a shortfall of empirical information regarding the financial health, well-being, access and security issues that face LGBTQ+ Americans. According to CLEAR, this limits public understanding of the experiences of the LGBTQ+ population, and the causes of, or contributors to, the obstacles they face.

It also hampers the effectiveness of policies or interventions intended to improve lives and economic stability.

Now, for the first time, a new survey sponsored by CLEAR and the Movement Advancement Project offers a comprehensive look at the financial well-being of LGBTQ+ communities. The first “LGBTQI+ Economic and Financial (LEAF) Survey” illustrates the power of inclusive data collection to illuminate the unique experiences of LGBTQ+ people, and support informed decision-making.

The survey consisted of 2,505 LGBTQ+ adults ages 18 or older in the U.S., administered online from December 16 to 27, 2022, with margin of error of ±2%. An additional survey of 503 straight and cisgender adults was conducted online from January 27 to 29, 2023, with the margin of error at ±4%.

The distribution of LGBTQ+ respondents alone is an interesting collection of data points, confirming existing research and contradicting common wisdom about where LGBTQ+ people live and thrive. The largest share lived in the South (40%), followed by the Midwest (23%), the West (20%), and finally the Northeast (17%). Additionally, more than one in five respondents (22%) lived in a rural area, more than two in five (43%) were from a suburban area, with the remainder (34%) living in an urban area

Consistent with existing research, the majority of respondents identified as bisexual (55%), about a third identified as gay or lesbian (32%), with 5% pansexual, 3% asexual, 2% another orientation and 1% unsure how they identified.

Gender broke down with 56% identifying as women, 37% as men, 7% nonbinary, genderfluid, or gender non-conforming, and 3% unsure. Fewer than 1% identified as Two-Spirit or as another gender.

6% of respondents identified as transgender. 3% identified as intersex.

The racial breakdown differed from research showing nearly half of the LGBTQ+ population are people of color. 67% of respondents identified as non-Hispanic white, 15% were Hispanic or Latino, 11% were non-Hispanic Black, 3% were non-Hispanic Asian American, and the remaining 4% reflected other (non-Hispanic) racial identities.  

Consistent with higher identification rates for LGBTQ+ young people, half of respondents were 18-34 years old (50%), one in five were 35-44 (20%), one in four were 45-64 (24%), and another 7% were over the age of 65.


LGBTQ+ income LEAF survey

The topline from the LEAF survey is that LGBTQ+ people make less money and have more debt than their straight peers. LGBTQ+ respondents reported far lower annual household incomes than adults nationwide (as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey), with a majority reporting a household income of less than $50,000 per year, compared to 36% of adults nationwide. While 34% of adults nationwide reported a household income of $100,000 or more, only 13% of LGBTQ+ respondents reported a six-figure income.

List of LGBTQ+ income sources from LEAF survey

The most common source of income was a full or part-time job. With this sample and the LGBTQ+ population both younger on average, respondents are more likely to be employed in the workforce and less likely to be retired and receive income through Social Security or a pension. In 2022, the U.S. Federal Reserve reported that 27% of people nationwide reported receiving Social Security income, higher than the 18% of LGBTQ+ respondents in this sample.

Employment Status

List of LGBTQ+ people's employment status from LEAF survey

Table 2 reveals over half of the LGBTQ+ population was working when the survey was conducted. At the time (December 2022), the national unemployment rate was 3.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, vs. 13% for LGBTQ+ respondents. The large difference illustrates why federal agencies should collect demographic data about sexual orientation and gender identity to better understand the unique experiences of LGBTQ+ people.

Most workers said they had one job (85%), but one in seven (14%) said they were working two jobs, while 1% reported they worked three or more jobs.

Almost one in five workers (18%) said one or more of their current jobs is a gig-worker position, twice as many as non-LGBTQ+ workers reported and more than four times the number of adults nationwide currently working a gig job (4%), according to a recent Pew survey.

The vast majority of workers were paid by direct deposit and check, while almost 10% were paid through apps like Venmo and Cashapp. Five percent said they received cash tips, and 4%  were paid under the table.

Employment benefits for workers in the private sector included health insurance (70%), dental insurance (59%), and paid sick leave (56%). One in three received paid family leave, but only 18% of respondents said their paid leave applied to chosen family, revealing a major gap in paid leave needs for LGBTQ+ people.

According to the Center for American Progress, 29% of LGBTQ+ people say they would be likely to turn to a partner to whom they were not legally married for care, and 72% of LGBTQ+ people ages 55 and older said they had been called upon to support friends or chosen family due to a health-related need.


Graph of LGBTQ+ people's savings from LEAF survey

When it comes to personal savings, there’s a major disparity between LGBTQ+ respondents and their straight peers. Over half of LGBTQ+ people had less than $5,000 in savings, including 20% who had no savings at all, a much lower rate than the median amount of savings and investments among U.S. households overall, which was $25,700, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances.


Graph on LGBTQ+ people's debt from LEAF survey
Graph of LGBTQ+ people's student loans from LEAF survey
Graph of LGBTQ+ people's student loan status from LEAF survey

While straight cohorts and LGBTQ+ people alike have hefty debts, they differ in composition. Almost half of LGBTQ+ people had more than $10,000 in debt, including 20% with more than $50,000, but student loans and credit cards were the largest contributors, vs. credit cards and mortgages for the non-LGBTQ+ population.

Survey authors point out student loan forgiveness programs would affect LGBTQ+ disproportionately in the positive. $10,000 of forgiveness for federal student loan borrowers would wipe out more than one quarter (28%) of LGBTQ+ student debt, while forgiving $20,000 would wipe out the balances of 40% of LGBTQ+ student borrowers.

Graph of LGBTQ+ people's ability to pay bills from LEAF survey

Debt, a lack of savings and a high unemployment rate are some of the reasons that just half of LGBTQ+ people reported they were able to pay all of their bills each month, in contrast to 62% of their straight peers who said they could pay all their bills. “Paying all of my bills on time” was by far the top financial priority of LGBTQ+ respondents (72%), compared with paying down debt (39%), improving my credit score (28%) and saving for retirement (22%).

In Part Two of our LEAF Financial Survey breakdown, we look at some of the other financial priorities of LGBTQ+ people, including starting a family, buying a home, and saving for gender-affirming care and procedures.

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