Transcript: Food Insecurity and Poverty in the LGBTQ Community with Bianca Wilson of UCLA’s Williams Institute

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Ami McReynolds| Chief Equity Officer, Feeding America: >22% of LGBTQ+ adults live in poverty and are disproportionately affected by food insecurity. 22%. A fact that makes this community twice as likely as others to face hunger. Joining us today is Bianca Wilson, a top educator on public policy and social work from the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law. Bianca is a published author with deep expertise on social issues within the LGBTQ community. Today, we're talking about how poverty and food insecurity is experienced by individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ through their own lens and experience.

What was the impact of that on the LGBTQ folks that you were talking with then?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. Just, more hunger. It meant, you know, choices to try to find food in other ways, or try to find income through other ways, through underground or other economy.

Ami McReynolds: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: But, for many, they just talked about remaining hungry and, you know, or for some, it meant trying to be as closeted as possible to access those resources.

Ami McReynolds: Welcome to “Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger.” I'm your host, Ami McReynolds. In our conversation, we'll dispel myths, learn about factors that contribute to poverty and food insecurity in this community and identify ways that we can address barriers in solidarity.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: I am a Southern California raised person who, you know, left and went to a historically black college for psychology and made my way to graduate school and got a doctorate in community psychology. And, you know, prior to my current work, most of my focus was on HIV prevention and sexual health and sexual culture. You know, I definitely loved that work and feel very invested in thinking about sexual rights and sexual health, but something that really was a very strong thread in all of that research, all of that, you know, school training, was the impact of poverty on the lives of Black and brown people, queer people, and how that impacted health. And so, you know, I made my way to the current position at the Williams Institute, knowing that I wanted to make that shift to focus more directly on poverty and economic issues.

Ami McReynolds: What does poverty look like for queer people and what are those pathways that are happening such that they find themselves in poverty?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. So I mean, poverty, what we've seen and we've been seeing this now for, you know, at least a decade of, of research has consistently shown that LGBT people as a whole experience more poverty, meaning they have lower incomes, than non LGBT people. And so we've known that for some time we've known, it's been particularly among women in the LGBT community. Some of our more recent research finally allowed us to look at subgroups in the LGBT community. Often, you know, the data kind of forces to clump everyone together. But in the last few years, my colleagues and I were able to look at the data where we could also look at subgroups, like how are cis lesbians faring, cis gay men faring compared to trans people. And there we see that yes, LGBT people as a whole experienced poverty at a higher rate, meaning about 22% of LGBT people were poor, a low income that meets that poverty threshold say compared to about 16% of cisgender straight people.

But when we look within the groups of LGBT people, we see that that rate is not the same for everyone. So particularly cis bisexual women, and by cis, I mean cisgender, bisexual women, as well as trans people have the highest rates—nearly 30% are reporting an income-to-household ratio that really meets that poverty threshold. So, you know, it's both important to think about LGBT people as a group, because there are unique factors, unique issues that they all experience, but also to keep in mind that some subgroups are struggling more than others. And it's important to try to understand that a little bit more.

Ami McReynolds: I should probably mention the study is Pathways to Justice that you've done with the Williams Institute.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Correct? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a study in two counties in California, in Los Angeles and Kern county.

Ami McReynolds: And in that study, from what I've seen, you look at data, right? But you also talk with folks about their experiences, their experiences with food insecurity, their experiences with poverty. I'm wondering if you can share with us some of the themes that you were seeing, either as it relates to poverty, but also the experiences that folks were having in trying to manage through food insecurity.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah, definitely. And, you know, I feel our approach to doing that study was really important in that, as you said, we spoke to people and got a sense of their lived experience. And, you know, research before that we had been talking about the numbers, but we needed more understanding of those pathways that you mentioned.

Ami McReynolds: And so this was groundbreaking in many ways. It's new information from the voices of people with lived experience.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Exactly. And so, you know, we made an effort to not only, we wanted to be in an urban space, but also a less urban space, which is why we chose Kern County. And to make sure we spoke to a, like a real range of LGBT people. And one of the main themes that we learned was that when we asked folks about how they grew up, and this was really important and new for the work on LGBT poverty, ’cause often we're thinking, okay, LGBT poverty, they're adults now, it must be all related to being LGBT. But we asked about how they grew up and, you know, over 70% of all the low-income people that we spoke to who, you know, identified across the spectrum of LGBTQ, but over 70% of them talked about childhood poverty and talked about growing up financially insecure, and among the people of color that was over 80%.

Ami McReynolds: That's pretty staggering.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It is. And just the importance of, you know, yes, we need to talk about the LGBT-related factors, but we also need to talk about how LGBT people are not much different than other people experiencing poverty. That it's part of that intergenerational cycle, that many LGBT folks move into adulthood with a lack of family financial resources, just like other people who are not LGBT. And that was important to kind of ground our thinking about pathways into poverty, but some things were more LGBT specific. So it wasn't just the factors that impact everyone. You know, some of the factors that were LGBT specific included like rejection from parents and, you know, so particularly the people we spoke to who grew up middle class and upper class, you know, who grew up with a lot of money basically.

Ami McReynolds: Right

Bianca Wilson, PhD: You know, when they started to come out as in some way, in terms of their sexuality or their gender, for some that beginning of economic instability was that cutoff from parents who were not accepting.

Ami McReynolds: Mm-hmm <affirmative>

Bianca Wilson, PhD: So, you know, that's kind of one of those, like LGBT-specific, beginnings of the path, as well as discrimination and employment and, you know, that as another factor for people too.

Ami McReynolds: What are some of the experiences of the folks that you talk to in terms of being able to access services and be able to access programs that would actually help support them?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. And we, we saw a lot of like these very, you know, LGBT specific or related experiences, particularly in the area of trying to manage hunger and trying to get food. People who lived particularly those in Kern County, for example. Kern County is one of our counties in the Central Valley that has some small town, some college, you know, a college town area, relatively small city, nothing as big as LA, but also has a lot of agricultural space and rural space. And we wanted to make sure that we were not just speaking to kind of the LA type experience. And so, yeah. Yeah. So that's Kern County, it's just a county north of LA and you just drive two hours north and you're in agricultural.

Ami McReynolds: So very different than the urban LA environment?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And so that is something that we learned about that while, LGBTQ people in both LA and Kern County, so in both urban and rural spaces, they talked about concerns with accessing food services, food, like charitable food services at religious-based organizations. The way it came up for those in Kern County was that those were among the only services they knew about. And so, you know, here in LA, people talked about, okay, I'm not gonna go to a Catholic run charity, but I might go to the LGBT center. Instead in Kern, they were primarily what was available, were these religiously-affiliated charitable food services.

Ami McReynolds: Those were the options.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Those were the options. Yeah. Yeah. And yeah, and they felt that was a barrier either because they had experienced something negative or because they had heard others had, or they had just had bad experiences with, you know, with churches before and feared it and would talk about staying away

Ami McReynolds: Mm-hmm <affirmative>. And would folks stay away. Right. So not access the programs and services. What was the impact of that on the LGBTQ folks that you were talking with then?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. Just, more hunger. It meant, you know, choices to try to find food in other ways, or try to find income through other ways, through underground or other economy.

Ami McReynolds: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: But, for many, they just talked about remaining hungry and, you know, or for some, it meant trying to be as closeted as possible to access those resources. And, you know, interestingly, when I mentioned earlier about the cisgender bisexual women who tend to have some of the highest rates of poverty.

Ami McReynolds: Yes.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: It was notable that a lot of the women in that group who talked about going to food banks, you know, they weren't going to, and this includes in LA. They’re not going to queer-specific food banks. They're not going to the LGBT center. They're going to, you know, any local food pantry, for example. And they just talked about, you know, I just don't tell anyone. They don't know I'm bi. So there's, you know, for some, the way they manage that is staying closeted.

Ami McReynolds: Right. Right. Which, I don't know, but I can imagine how difficult that must be for folks to be able to deny themselves, right? To be able to get access to services and support that are needed.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Absolutely. Yeah.

Ami McReynolds: Yeah. Were there other, either similarities or differences that you saw across sort of this geographic spectrum that you've talked about?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, I actually expected a lot more large differences. And you know, one of those assumptions, and maybe this is, you know, part of my urban assumption that I had to also check was this idea that, say, in LA, we might hear about less discrimination and that was not the case. So there were more similarities across the geographic locations than differences. Again, those big differences had to do with the number of resources, the number of pantries, the types of pantries or other services. Kern County doesn't have like a very, it has a, a great, you know, very committed LGBT center in Bakersfield, but it's not very large. It's nothing, you know, I don't think any city, maybe Chicago has one as large as the LA one. But there were so many more similarities between the counties that that was striking. How, in both counties, uh, Latinx, LGBTQ folks talked about issues related to being documented and being an immigrant and concerns around accessing resources. Something we thought, well, maybe we'd hear about more in the rural county than LA, but it was something we heard about in both spaces.

Ami McReynolds: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Discrimination and housing. You know, we had, in one of our interviews, a white cis gay man talked about being discriminated against applying for a rental in LA. And, you know, people tend to think, oh, it's LA, you know, they're doing fine. Um, no. A lot of folks are not doing fine. Black trans women talking about going to homeless shelters and feeling, you know, discriminated against both because of their blackness, you know, being Black and being trans. That was one of the, you know, and I think that's good as a researcher, you wanna go in and not assume that you're gonna find exactly what you thought you'd find. And that was one of the things that stood out to me.

Ami McReynolds: So you found that surprising as part of your research.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. That maybe even I had bought in a little bit to, oh, the world is gonna seem so much worse. It wasn't that it wasn't bad, but there were also so much happening in LA as well. And evidence of resilience in, in both, you know, so on both sides, people talked about sometimes having supporting families and being able to rely on them. And that wasn't also just a purely LA or urban LGBT you know, Mecca story. It was actually something that we hear in many places.

Ami McReynolds: Yeah. What about, Bianca, the ability to access, sign up for, get support around safety net programs, right. Government safety, net programs, I think about SNAP or food stamps, in particular. What experiences were folks having with being able to access these government programs, right, that are meant for all.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. When thinking about, you know, how the people who spoke to us experienced signing up for benefits, I think here again, we hear both the kind of stories you hear among all people, not just LGBT. So you hear about just if they're dealing with substance use. So I, I remember several quotes from people talking about, you know, trying to manage substance use on managing mental health issues. Just the amount of paperwork they felt they had to maintain in order to get services. That was a barrier. And that's something I know I've heard in doing work even outside of LGBT spaces. So some of those are consistently similar. But then other experiences, again, that are LGBT specific. One woman, she's actually a cis bi woman. And this is actually one of the few interviews we did once COVID had started, but she talked about going into a benefits office and here she was signing up for SNAP actually.

But it was associated with her WIC application too. And she talked about bringing this, a woman with her who wasn't her girlfriend. It was just a friend, but she was masculine presenting. So she said, you know, I brought my butch friend with me and all of a sudden the woman who had helped me before now was very rude to me and wouldn't help me. So, you know, she's revealing this experience of, you know, up until then. And she, she was more feminine presenting. They probably didn't even assume she was gay or queer or bi. But by her bringing her friend with her, essentially outed her, and then it became, you know, she just described it as like an attitude that she had to deal with. And she still went ahead and applied for the benefits, but, you know, still walked away from that experience just feeling very discouraged about what it means to have to go back and have to go through the process to get what's needed for her and her kids.

Ami McReynolds: Yes. Being able, she felt that difference. She felt that difference, right. Whether it was blatant or sort of the microaggressions that we often see happening, but she could feel that difference. And it sounds like, it may potentially cause someone to question, right. Do I want to go through that again? Even if I need these supports.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. Yeah. And when thinking about, you know, I do think there's more for us to learn and understand, particularly around SNAP and LGBT people's experiences. You know, we know from like a more recent study that we did using some census data that was collected starting in COVID, the times of COVID, now that we have a before and after time.

Ami McReynolds: Is it after society, Bianca? Are we still after?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. It's more like after the beginning of COVID. Right?

Ami McReynolds: Exactly.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: And, you know, so looking at those data, and this is from a recent study we published on food insufficiency among LGBT people. And, you know, we see that around a third of LGBT people that you might think of as eligible because of their income are enrolled in SNAP. So about a third were enrolled in SNAP, those who are income eligible, but something we have to remember about SNAP eligibility is that it's not just simply about income and household ratio.

Ami McReynolds: Right.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Especially being able to obtain long-term SNAP benefits. Then you start to, you know, take into consideration whether people are married and have children. And I, I think this is relevant for us to think about the whole notion of how eligibility for SNAP is determined when, you know, LGBT people, as a whole group are less likely to have children than non-LGBT people. Now, you know, the rates are different, you know, a lot of particularly gay women of color tend to have children, but as a whole community, LGBT people are less likely to have children, than non-LGBT people. Well, this is now a group that's experiencing high rates of poverty, high rates of food insecurity.

Ami McReynolds: Mm-hmm <affirmative>

Bianca Wilson, PhD: And don't have one of those main factors are less likely to have one of those main factors that would allow you to have, you know, SNAP benefits for more than three months, for example. So it's just, that is something that we need to be thinking about to just in terms of policy, around access to those benefits.

Ami McReynolds: Yeah. Bianca, you, you touched on something that I definitely wanted to dig into a bit more, which is based on what you're learning, right. What are the implications for policy and policy change and even services that LGBTQ people may need? How can we take what you've learned to improve access? And we can also talk about experience, right? Improving access and eligibility is one thing—experience is something different. But I'm curious, what are those implications for policies and services for LGBTQ folks?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. I, you know, I have to say, I think to answer that I'll probably even back up a little bit to talk about what I took from one of those main findings from the Pathways project, which is when we note that the majority of low-income LGBT people in our study come from households, come from families, that were already experiencing poverty, that should be a reminder about the strong impact of structural racism and intergenerational poverty in the lives of LGBT people like non-LGBT people.

Ami McReynolds: Yes.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Right. So if we know that being raised in neighborhoods that are in food deserts, neighborhoods that have, you know, low resources, a lot of poverty already, you know, part of growing up, it impacts access to education, pathways and social capital for getting jobs. When we know that that's actually how a majority of LGBT people are coming into poverty as adults, which means that that starts before most of them are LGBT. And I think that's really important for thinking about policy, because it does tell us that a lot of the policies that our colleagues who are focusing on racial justice, racial, economic justice, the policies they're focused on, so where you, you know, where we might have hope that, you know, Build Back Better, might target some of those issues, like widespread access to preschool and daycare, you know, all the policies that we think of, pay equity for women, those broad sweeping policies that are intended to, say, impact the lives of women of color more generally. These data suggest that those should also be helping LGBT communities more generally.

Ami McReynolds: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Because that's where poverty started for a lot of them.

Ami McReynolds: I think you said this earlier, right. Over 70%, overall, and then for people of color, that was 80%

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Correct. Correct. And so when we see that, I think it, it demands that we tie a racialized analysis for economic justice and food insecurity to the LGBT agenda. It demands that those go together and, you know, so beyond that, we can talk about policies that are LGBT specific that address discrimination in federal and state-based agencies for LGBT people. Clearly the data show that that continues to be a factor that creates barriers to reducing hunger barriers, to getting out of poverty. So it's really taking some of those policies that are LGBT-specific around improving organizations, improving their capacity to serve and be inclusive of all people. But combining that with an analysis around the deep root causes of poverty for the majority of folks in the U.S.

Ami McReynolds: Right. As you speak, Bianca we talk here, I'm thinking about just right, the similarities and the unique differences and the opportunities that we have as we talk about this racialized analysis for addressing policies for LGBTQ, the same racialized analysis for all people and all policies can also be helpful too. So I'm hearing this almost like an interconnectedness between thinking about poverty broadly, and then also the unique differences for LGBTQ folks that really matter. How do we bring those two together?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, that is where we need to go. I know, you know, obviously I see my role in social change and bringing solutions. I see my role as part of the bringing knowledge and facts to the table. I see research as part of one of those spokes in the wheel toward equity. So, you know, not surprisingly, I tend to say, oh, there's, you know, more questions we need to answer. But I know folks who are doing great practice and advocacy work in this area, and they've taken data like this to heart, like those at NCLR who have been doing anti-poverty work for some time. And, what I see them doing is integrating more of these general policies around women and children, pay equity, and essentially naming that as part of the LGBT agenda. Yeah. It can't just be those things that are LGBT-specific. So that is what I see people who are, you know, kind of both grassroots and what do they say, the grass tops, doing work on these issues of hunger and poverty. That's how I see them using information like this to justify ways to blend these agendas or to understand that one is subsumed in the other.

Ami McReynolds: Right. Yes, and. Right? It's yeah. Both. Yep. So what's next? You talked about, there's still some great questions that need to be answered. So from your research lens, Bianca, what would you say are some of those key questions that we still need to do additional research around?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. I think one of the big questions I have coming out of this, given that my focus was on was talking to LGBT people about their lived experiences and talking to them about the services that they've encountered, you know, it wasn't a direct conversation then with organizational staff and benefits offices, you know, staff that work there. And I think that is a needed next step is to understand how do threats to inclusivity, to equity, how do they actually play out and happen, in those organizational spaces? And, you know, I think that is a next step, in terms of those like state-based or county-based run offices. I think we could also do more. Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Ami McReynolds: No, I'm saying great. Yeah, that's helpful. Thank you.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. And I think we could, you know, also do more and I know that actually, the research department at Feeding America has been doing some of this. That, you know, evaluating and looking at how charitable food services are executed and their direct clients’ experiences within those. And I think when you look within the organization that can bring a clear and more holistic picture about how people are, what it's like to get services there across both LGBT status, racial status, gender, immigrant, you know, immigrant status can understand that within. So I think really a lot of these organizational projects are needed next.

Ami McReynolds: All right, let's do that work. And I'm curious, Bianca, as you think about your research, you know, one question I always like to ask on the podcast is, you know, if we were to look 10 years out from now, right. Policy change is a long game, but experience and what folks are experiencing doesn't have to be. I'm curious, 10 years from now, what do you hope to see happening in communities across the country as a result of the research that you and others in the field are doing specifically to support LGBTQ communities?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah. I mean, to support LGBTQ people, 5, 10 years down the line, I would like to see change at the neighborhood level that is inclusive of LGBT people, and yet highly focused on the impact of structural racism that we see the integration of those agendas clearly, which means, you know, impacting policies around home ownership and gentrification, and, you know, neighborhoods. Like when I'm thinking in the counties where people were from, that were in our study and they talk about what they didn't have access to in their neighborhoods. So actual parks, safety, schools that had resources and, say, food, if, you know, if it was needed. That we see that as part of our LGBT work and not thinking solely about LGBT people outside of the families and communities and neighborhoods that they came from.

Ami McReynolds:  As whole people and part of whole communities. So Bianca, are there other factors that that impact the ability of folks to be able to access food. Curious what else you were learning in your research?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yeah, and this was actually another area where I was, again, a little surprised at how similar people talked about these issues in both the rural and urban spaces. And that was the issue of transportation. And, you know, we can think of, you know, obviously transportation barriers, again, flowing from overall poverty, you know, having access to cars, cars that work. And, it sounded a little different in our urban space versus not urban, but nonetheless transportation was brought up. And just getting to where they needed to go to get food was not as easy as people might assume. And it was a major barrier to getting the food that they needed, getting to charitable food services. And again, particularly in Kern, if there are fewer services around, it's gonna take you three hours to get there. People are trying to find other ways to get that food. And that also wasn't always successful. So they went hungry yeah. And related to that. And another thing that came up was housing, and just how significant housing is in the fight against food insecurity. For example, I remember one man that spoke to us, talked about, you know, I go to all these food pantries and they give me all these great vegetables and, you know, they're trying to promote healthiness. And he talked about, well, when I get home, I don't really have, you know, he was in like an SRO, like a single residence occupancy.

Ami McReynolds: Where do you store this?

Bianca Wilson, PhD: He was like, where do I store this?

Ami McReynolds: Yes.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: How do I cook this? You know? So there are these layers of limitations with all these very intertwined factors of transportation, housing, and how it impacts hunger Just a cycle that was really evident in how people talked about their lives.

Ami McReynolds: Yeah. I mean, we often will say at Feeding America: no one is food insecure alone. There are a host, it's an economic issue. Yeah. And if you're experiencing food insecurity, you're likely having challenges with housing and you're likely having challenges with transportation, whether it's being able to access transportation, afford transportation these days as we think about inflation. So, I appreciate hearing some of these same challenges. Not that that's a good thing, but knowing that again, if we're working on barriers for all people, that it will have an impact also for LGBT folks in communities all across this country. And we should be aware of those unique differences that can also help to support LGBT communities and LGBT folks all across the country.

Bianca Wilson, PhD: Yep, absolutely.

Ami McReynolds: Yep.

Thank you for joining us on this episode of Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. To learn more about the research referenced on today's show, be sure to review the show description, where you can find links to the Williams Institute of Law. And to learn about the work Feeding America's doing to address equity and food insecurity, visit Thank you to our podcast producer, Rivet 360. And don't forget to share this show with others. Be sure to subscribe so that you can get new episodes as soon as they're available. I'm your host, Ami McReynolds, and I look forward to continuing our equity journey together in the next episode.