Public discussion about American families often assumes the nation is largely made up of married heterosexual couples raising their biological children. In fact, Census Bureau data show that less than a quarter of all U.S. households fall into this category. Today’s children may be raised by grandparents, single parents, stepparents, aunts, uncles, or foster parents. Their parents may be married or unmarried; they may be straight or gay.
Unfortunately, public policy has not kept up with the changing reality of the American family, especially during recent periods of national economic crisis. Instead, outdated laws largely ignore the roughly 2 million children being raised by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, parents, as well as many children in unmarried heterosexual families or families headed by related caregivers. Tragically, the barriers and discrimination faced by 21st century families due to outdated laws and policies often pose the greatest harm to the children who could most benefit from safety net programs, including children living in low-income or otherwise struggling LGBT families.
In October 2011 the Movement Advancement Project, the Family Equality Council, and the Center for American Progress released the report, “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families.” The report offers one of the most comprehensive portraits to date of LGBT families in America and details ways in which antiquated laws and stigma make it harder for children with LGBT parents to achieve three major needs:
- Stable, loving homes
- Economic security
- Health and wellbeing
This column summarizes a follow-up report, “Strengthening Economic Security for Children Living in LGBT Families,” which is the first in a companion series to the “All Children Matter” report. Focusing specifically on economic security, this follow-up report expands the conversation about the economic disparities faced by LGBT families—with an emphasis on families who are low income or facing sudden crisis, such as the death or disablement of a parent. It contains national and state policy recommendations, but also broadens the recommendations to apply to those working directly with low-income families, and the foundations and funders who support their work.
“We are a blended family that sometimes worries about how to put food on the table for our kids. We get no assistance because although I support four people on my income, they will only count three, our kids and me, so we do not fit into their mold of who needs help. The kids are not secure legally if something ever happens to me and that scares me. I wish for one day that I didn’t have to worry and could know my kids will stay with their other mom when I part this earth.”
— Lisa T. from California
Who are LGBT families?
America’s families are changing. Today just 69 percent of children live with married, heterosexual parents, down from 83 percent in 1970. This trend is, in part, driven by increasing numbers of LGBT families that are raising children. Currently, between 2 million and 2.8 million children are being raised by LGBT parents, and 24 percent of female same-sex couples and 11 percent of male same-sex couples are raising children. A recent survey of transgender Americans finds that 38 percent identify as parents.
Overall, LGBT families are racially and ethnically diverse—more so than married, heterosexual couples raising children. Only 59 percent of same-sex couples with children identify as white compared to 73 percent of married heterosexual couples with children. Similarly, 55 percent of children raised by same-sex couples are white compared to 70 percent of children raised by married heterosexual couples.
Reflecting trends in the broader population, same-sex couples of color raising children are more likely to be poor than white same-sex couples raising children. Of lesbian couples with children, for example, poverty rates are 14 percent for white households, 16 percent for Asian Pacific Islander households, 29 percent for Native American households, and 32 percent for Latina and African American households.
While research about families headed by transgender parents is limited, transgender people in general face severe economic challenges. For example, a large national survey of transgender Americans found 15 percent reported making $10,000 or less per year—a rate of extreme poverty four times that of the general population.
Although you might expect that LGBT families live in major metropolitan areas or in states with policies friendly to LGBT Americans, LGBT families are geographically dispersed, living in 93 percent of all U.S. counties. States like California and New York have high numbers of same-sex couples, yet same-sex couples are most likely to raise children in Mississippi, followed by Wyoming, Alaska, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama, Montana, South Dakota, and South Carolina.
Lack of legal recognition for LGBT families
LGBT families form in myriad ways. LGBT parents may want to foster or adopt, or they may have children from previous relationships. For LGBT couples wishing to conceive and parent a newborn child together, parenthood may come about through donor insemination or surrogacy (though these options may be too expensive for many families).
“My wife (although we are not legally married, we had a ceremony) and I planned our pregnancy together and thought things like changing last names and adoption would go smoothly. But right after I got pregnant, I was laid off and we still aren’t caught up with all the legal hoops we need to jump through. Although we all share the same last name now because I petitioned for a name change through court, we can’t afford for my wife to adopt our beautiful son and, the way things look, we won’t have the money for legal fees anytime in the near future. I have tried to look into making a will or something to name her as a guardian in case anything happens while we’re trying to save up money, but people keep sending me back to the lawyers that we can’t afford. In the meantime, we’re getting by and praying that nothing happens to harm our family. We may not be rolling in money, but our love for each other and for our son will pull us through.”
— Celia S. from Indiana
Regardless of how LGBT families form, however, laws may not exist to protect the family by ensuring that children have or can establish legal relationships with both parents. This inability to form legal ties leads to higher percentages of “unrelated” children for LGBT parents. Recent analysis of Census data on same-sex couples raising children indicates that 36 percent of same-sex households with children include adopted children, stepchildren, and nonrelated children, compared to 10 percent for married heterosexual couples and 24 percent for unmarried heterosexual couples.
When a child is born to, or adopted by, a married heterosexual couple, that child is generally recognized by all 50 states as the legal child of both parents. By contrast, a child with LGBT parents faces a climate of uncertainty. A child awaiting adoption might be denied a forever home simply because the caring adults who want to provide it are a same-sex couple. A lesbian couple using donor insemination might find that the nonbiological mother is a legal stranger to her child. Or both mothers might be considered legal parents in one state, yet only one mother might be considered to be a legal parent in another. Finally, the federal government may not recognize both parents as legal parents even when the state in which the family lives does so.
Most families don’t think twice about how to show the world who the legal parents are in their household. But many LGBT families are likely to encounter this concern throughout their lives. When parents are legal strangers to their children, families may be unable to get health insurance, face higher tax burdens, and be denied safety-net services when facing economic crises.
Extra social and economic costs for LGBT families
LGBT families not only face discrimination and social stigma based on widespread anti-LGBT sentiments, they also face economic burdens that most families do not. Those impacted the most are low-income LGBT families, who are also more likely to be families of color and therefore already facing discrimination and a separate set of barriers as well.
For low-income LGBT families, the additional economic obstacles to protecting and providing for their family can be insurmountable. Here are some of the most common ways that these obstacles translate into tough realities for LGBT families:
- Families can’t afford legal fees. Creating legal protections that try to make up for the lack of marriage and parental ties is costly for LGBT families. Many LGBT families cannot afford the thousands of dollars of legal fees associated with second-parent adoptions, parentage judgments, parental-guardianship agreements, wills and estate planning, and more.
- Families pay higher taxes. LGBT families cannot file joint federal tax returns (which could result in a lower tax payment), and LGBT parents who cannot establish a legal parent-child relationship are denied child-related tax deductions and credits available to other households.
- Children have few options for welcoming schools. Low-income LGBT families may have limited alternatives for welcoming schools for their children. Private school tuition is cost prohibitive, and even when scholarships are available, some schools may choose not to admit children with LGBT parents.
- Families have reduced access to health insurance for their children. When LGBT workers cannot enroll family members in an employer-sponsored plan, they must obtain their own insurance or go without it. Even when benefits are offered, for most LGBT families, both the employee and the employer are taxed on this benefit.
Struggling LGBT families have little recourse
Federal, state, and local governments have established programs and policies to help families meet basic physical needs and raise healthy, well-adjusted children. These programs are particularly essential for families in crisis, low-income families, or families living in poverty. Government-based economic protections include safety net programs as well as other programs and legal protections designed to provide economic stability when a parent dies or becomes disabled.
Yet government-based economic protections are applied unevenly based on family structure. Rather than tying qualification for benefits to family size or need, governments use inconsistent definitions of family to determine assistance, including whether or not parents are married or whether they have legal ties to their children. This uneven application of government benefits and other protections based on family structure affects not only LGBT families but also many other types of families.
For LGBT families, some government programs and laws use a broad definition of “family” or “household” that looks at the actual interconnectedness of people (such as the extent to which individuals share economic resources like food or housing). Most programs and laws, however, use narrow definitions of family that refuse to recognize same-sex couples or nonlegally related children. And the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, prevents the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples, even if the couple is legally married under state law.
In addition to the economic burdens outlined earlier, this lack of family recognition means laws designed to support families when a parent dies or becomes disabled often exclude LGBT families, and children fall through the safety net when government programs refuse to recognize their families. The companion report analyzes in detail the impact that these laws—as currently implemented—have on LGBT families and their children.
Recommendations and conclusion
LGBT families should not be marginalized or excluded from the vital support networks that exist to ensure that families can meet their children’s basic needs. The comprehensive report, “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families,” details more than 100 federal, state, and local policy recommendations designed to benefit children living in LGBT families.
A summary of the policy recommendations related to strengthening legal ties, reducing economic inequality, and supporting eligibility for safety net programs for LGBT families is in the companion report, “Strengthening Economic Security for Children Living in LGBT Families,” as well. Additionally, the companion report provides a number of practical steps that governmental agencies, community-based organizations, advocates, and funders can take to assist and support LGBT families in crisis, low-income LGBT families, and LGBT families living in poverty.
The policy recommendations that specifically apply to the economic security of LGBT families include:
- Legally recognizing LGBT families
- Legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, including the repeal of DOMA
- Legally recognizing families by passing comprehensive parental-recognition laws at the state level to fully protect children in LGBT families
- Revising the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS, tax code to provide equitable treatment for LGBT families
- Providing pathways to immigration and citizenship for binational and immigrant LGBT families
- Advancing equal access to health insurance and care
- Modernizing archaic wrongful death and intestacy statutes
- Opening government safety net programs to LGBT families
- Defining “family” broadly across federal government programs
- Revising requirements, definitions, and priorities for TANF to reflect today’s families
- Ensuring equal access for LGBT families to food and nutrition assistance
- Increasing access to public housing and housing assistance
- Revising Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, to be inclusive of LGBT families
- Revising the federal Social Security Act to broaden the definition of spouse and child to include diverse families in the sections on Supplemental Security Income, or SSI
- Providing equitable economic protections when a parent dies or is disabled
- Broadening the definition of family for child care and early assistance programs
The path to full economic security for LGBT families is not simple, especially with the many current laws in place that do not recognize the very real fact that LGBT families and other diverse families exist. It is time for public policy to be based on facts and not on animus. If states and the federal government implemented the recommendations outlined here, our nation would make a giant leap forward in achieving LGBT equality and in making sure its public policies and programs are based on reality.
Jennifer Chrisler is the executive director of the Family Equality Council, Laura Deaton is the policy research director of the Movement Advancement Project, and Jeff Krehely is Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.