Update, February 11, 2021: This column has been updated to reflect that on February 11, 2021, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would administer and fully enforce the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis has sent shockwaves throughout the country. As of February 11, it has resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million Americans; left more than 10 million people, disproportionately women and people of color, unemployed; and placed as many as 30 to 40 million Americans, approximately 20 percent of renter households, at risk of eviction. These catastrophic events are magnifying existing inequalities experienced by LGBTQ people, who, in addition to being at higher risk of severe cases of COVID-19, are more likely to suffer adverse impacts in the realms of workforce participation, economic security, and homelessness. Moreover, LGBTQ people living at the intersection of multiple identities that are historically discriminated against—including LGBTQ communities of color, low-income households, and people with disabilities—are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s burden.
To comprehensively address the damaging economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, any federal response must integrate the needs of LGBTQ people and ensure that these communities are not left behind in the recovery efforts.
The coronavirus is exacerbating economic insecurity faced by LGBTQ people
Compared with the general population, LGBTQ people are at greater risk of experiencing economic insecurities due to disproportionate economic hardships, such as higher rates of poverty and unemployment, greater food insecurity and vulnerability to homelessness, and workforce discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). These conditions and disparities predate the pandemic, but they have also been exacerbated by it.
A key driver of employment instability and unemployment among LGBTQ communities is the prevalence of discrimination when attempting to enter the workforce and maintain employment. Indeed, nationally representative survey data from the Center for American Progress reveal that widespread employment discrimination has a moderate or significant negative impact on the ability of LGBTQ people to be hired, as well as their ability to retain employment and wages.* And while the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County and President Joe Biden’s recent nondiscrimination executive order provide protections under federal law, they do not erase discrimination.
COVID-19 has merely exacerbated existing barriers to stable employment for LGBTQ people, who are overrepresented in industries highly affected by the pandemic—such as restaurants and food services, hospitals, K-12 education, colleges and universities, and retail. Analysis by the Human Rights Campaign reveals that these five industries make up approximately 40 percent of all industries where LGBTQ people work, compared with 22 percent of industries where non-LGBTQ people work. This suggests that due to disproportionate employment in these industries, nearly 5 million LGBTQ workers are enduring financial hardships created by the pandemic and governments’ varying responses to mitigating COVID-19 transmission and infection rates.
Recent data from the Movement Advancement Project highlight the disproportionate harms being felt by LGBTQ households relative to non-LGBTQ households, particularly when it comes to serious financial hardships. Such difficulties include problems paying utilities; affording medical care; paying credit card bills, loans, or other debt; coping with employment loss; and having wages or hours reduced or taking a mandatory unpaid leave.
Experiences of anti-LGBTQ discrimination and disparities in the areas of employment and housing create substantial barriers to attaining and maintaining economic security as well as adequate living standards. To help meet their basic needs in these areas, LGBTQ people and their families are more likely than their non-LGBTQ counterparts to seek access to and rely on public programs and federal benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), unemployment insurance, and subsidized housing assistance. While about 13 percent of the general population reported receiving benefits from SNAP in June 2020—with well under 1 percent receiving TANF benefits—25 percent of LGBTQ survey respondents reported that they or their family had received SNAP benefits in the year prior, with 6 percent reporting the same of TANF.** Due to the effects of systemic and institutionalized racism, transphobia, and ableism, even higher benefit usage rates are reported among LGBTQ people of color, transgender people, and LGBTQ people with disabilities—many of the same communities being hit hardest by the pandemic.
Due to experiences of stigma, discrimination in labor and lending markets, and disproportionate economic hardships, LGBTQ people are encountering additional barriers to secure, safe, and stable housing during the pandemic. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, evidence revealed that LGBTQ adults have a 15 percent greater likelihood of being poor than their non-LGBTQ counterparts—and are 20 percentage points less likely to own homes, contributing to a greater risk of eviction. Thirteen percent of LGBTQ homeowners report experiencing discrimination from lenders and real estate agents, and a study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that LGBTQ couples pay higher interest rates and experience higher rates of loan rejection than do their heterosexual counterparts. Meanwhile, high rates of rejection from family members make LGBTQ youth and young adults 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness.
Housing instability is particularly prevalent among transgender individuals, who are nearly four times more likely than the general population to have a household income of below $10,000. Representative data from the National Center for Transgender Equality find that 1 in 5 transgender people have been refused a home or apartment due to their gender identity or expression, with 11 percent reporting that they had been evicted for the same reasons. Meanwhile, only 32 percent of transgender individuals are homeowners, less than half the rate of the general population. As a result of these factors, 1 in 5 transgender people have also experienced homelessness in their lives, a situation often compounded by their inability to access shelter—29 percent of transgender individuals attempting to access homeless shelters have been turned away.
Altogether, this lack of housing stability leaves LGBTQ people—and transgender individuals in particular—more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure as well as physical, mental, or substance abuse disorders
Recovery efforts must provide targeted COVID-19 economic relief for LGBTQ workers and households
Addressing the pandemic’s damaging economic impacts on the lives of LGBTQ people requires a strategically coordinated effort across federal agencies as well as state and local governments. During his first week in office, President Biden immediately signed executive orders to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination; advance equity for underserved communities, including LGBTQ people; establish a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force; and mobilize a coordinated and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both generally and specifically as it relates to data collection. These executive orders offer critical tools that can be used to integrate targeted assistance for LGBTQ people—particularly LGBTQ communities of color—across agencies tasked with implementing the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Labor and economic security
Because LGBTQ people are more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to rely on public benefits to support their basic needs, expanding eligibility and improving application processes would benefit their ability to access these programs.
- The federal government should eliminate onerous work requirements; increase benefit amounts and funding to support program administration; and continue to maintain the existing flexibilities implemented in response to COVID-19 for SNAP.
- Regarding TANF, states and the federal government should take various actions to increase and improve use of the program during the pandemic. This includes creating a federal TANF Emergency Fund, thereby allowing states to spend their reserve funds now and take actions such as boosting cash assistance, expanding eligibility by suspending work and work-search requirements and sanctions, increasing the income threshold, allowing childless adults to sign up and receive benefits, freezing lifetime-use limits, and automatically recertifying all recipients.
- State and federal governments should update application forms for public programs and benefits to include options that reflect the diversity of gender identities and family structures across the LGBTQ community in order to increase accessibility.
- Rescind the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ (OFCCP) final rule, which provides taxpayer-funded federal contractors and subcontractors with a broad license to discriminate against people who do not share their religious beliefs, exacerbating risks of employment discrimination and unemployment.
- Direct the creation of a new SOGI reporting requirement that contractors disclose plans for inclusive recruiting and subcontracting as part of OFCCP affirmative action plans.
- Explicitly include LGBTQ identity in the Small Business Administration’s definition of minority-owned businesses in order to increase access to grants for LGBTQ-owned small businesses, which have struggled throughout the pandemic.
- Issue guidance to clarify that transgender people are eligible for Department of Labor programs for disadvantaged workers, Women’s Bureau programs, Small Business Administration women and disadvantaged workers programs, and U.S. Department of Commerce programs, including Minority Business Development Agency programs.
More broadly, the Biden administration should work with Congress to support LGBTQ households by providing financial stimulus support for low- and middle-income households; targeting stimulus-funded job creation to support opportunities for LGBTQ communities; increasing the federal minimum wage; ensuring that COVID-19 essential workers are well-paid and safe at work; increasing funding and access to unemployment insurance programs; and ensuring that pandemic relief legislation includes SOGI nondiscrimination protections that apply to all existing and future bills.
Housing instability and homelessness
Given the disproportionately high levels of poverty, homelessness, and discrimination in credit and lending for LGBTQ people, the Biden administration should work with Congress to secure increased federal funding for Homeless Assistance Grants—including the Emergency Solutions Grant program, the Continuum of Care program, the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, and the LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Prevention Initiative—as well as shelters and other programs and services that support people who are unhoused or experiencing homelessness. In addition, the administration should provide subsidized housing assistance programs such as housing choice vouchers, project-based rental assistance, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural rental housing loans.
To support housing stability, the federal government should also implement a national, comprehensive moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for all renters and homeowners for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as provide rental assistance that covers owed back rent and forward rent for the duration of the pandemic and its recovery.
Finally, in implementing the recent SOGI nondiscrimination executive order, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) concluded that the Fair Housing Act’s sex discrimination provisions also prohibit discrimination on the basis of SOGI, including in rental housing and shelters. As HUD continues to implement the SOGI nondiscrimination executive order and recent executive order on addressing discriminatory housing, it should also explicitly withdraw the proposed rule allowing refusal of service to transgender people at single-sex shelters; rescind the 2020 disparate impact standard; restore implementation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and allocate sufficient resources to ensure compliance; restore protections for LGBTQ people in the Notice of Funding Availability; and work with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to ensure nondiscrimination in credit and lending.
In addition to the public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has further jeopardized the ability of LGBTQ people—and countless other Americans—to secure the resources they need to stay afloat, exacerbating existing challenges for these individuals to achieve labor and economic security as well as stable housing. Indeed, the pandemic has amplified systemic inequalities, particularly for LGBTQ people who are Black, Latinx, women, or low income. Policymakers across all levels of government have an obligation to implement targeted strategies that address the needs of those who are most vulnerable, including LGBTQ people, their families, and their communities. It is vital that these individuals are not left behind, as was the case during the last financial crisis.
Caroline Medina is a policy analyst for the LGBTQ Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Lindsay Mahowald is a research assistant for the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project at the Center.
*Authors’ note: Data are from a nationally representative survey of 1,528 LGBTQ+ identifying individuals, jointly conducted in June 2020 by the Center for American Progress and NORC at the University of Chicago.
**Authors’ note: Statistics on benefits usage in the general population were created using U.S. Department of Agriculture data on monthly SNAP usage and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data on monthly TANF usage, divided by the size of the U.S. population in June 2020.
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