Spotlight Exclusives

New Data Shows More Than 25% of Transgender Adults Are Food Insecure

Kerith Conron Kerith Conron, posted on

New data collected for the first time by the Census Bureau has provided disturbing evidence about the level of food insecurity among transgender people. Transgender adults were three times as likely as cisgender people to experience food insecurity this year, according to new data analyzed by the Williams Institute at UCLA. The data, which was collected by the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey between June and October 2021, showed that more than a quarter of transgender adults in the United States reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat, compared with just 8 percent of cisgender adults. Spotlight spoke with study co-author Kerith Conron, research director at the Williams Institute, about the new data. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The data your study is based on is a new Census feature, correct?

 Yes, we were so pleased that the Census Bureau added questions to the Household Pulse Survey in July of last year that allowed us to identify people who are transgender in the data set. They added questions about sex assigned at birth and current gender identity, which enabled us to cross-classify people on the basis of their responses to those two questions. People who said their sex assigned at birth is female and their gender identity is female were classified as cisgender and the same for males. And then if there were discordant answers, we could classify folks as transgender – for instance people whose sex assigned to birth is female but gave their gender identity as male and vice versa. And then anybody who said that their gender identity is transgender, we also classified as transgender. That was great because the Household Pulse Survey is the federal government’s response to the pandemic in terms of understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of the American public—kids’ access to education, health and wellness, employment, access to food and lots of other resources. And for a long time, the survey included no questions that would allow us to differentiate between transgender people and cisgender people, or even lesbian, gay, bisexual people, and straight people.

And did the Census bureau do that on its own, or was it the result of a legislative change?

I think the Census Bureau, for a long time, has really been considering ways to gather more information about LGBT people. The fact that they managed to get some questions on that survey in the summer, I do think was directly related to the Biden administration’s executive orders about data collection and equity. I think the change in administration created some opportunities for career staff at the Census Bureau to put questions on surveys.

Got it—and sorry to interrupt

All to say it was just so great to see these questions in this big survey. And the fact that it’s big is fabulous because the transgender community by and large is about a half percentage point of the population. So, it’s small and you really do need big data sets in order to have enough people in them to produce statistics about this community. We could look at some variability by educational attainment and race-ethnicity and be able to talk a little bit about what was going on for different groups of transgender people related to food insufficiency.

And so, what did you find in terms of food insecurity?

Well, it, it wasn’t unexpected, but it’s sad to say that food insufficiency was much more common among transgender people and this parallels patterns of poverty—unemployment, lower educational attainment. Seeing higher rates of food insufficiency is very consistent with lower socioeconomic status and that’s what we observed in this data set and also have been seen in a few other data sets that collect information that allows you to differentiate between transgender and cisgender people.

And did the data indicate that this had worsened during the pandemic for this population?

That’s a great question. Because the questions to identify trans folks were added in fairly late, we really can’t talk about trends. This is also one of the first times, to my knowledge, that we have information about food insufficiency for trans people in a big national survey data set and so it’s really a rare opportunity. One of the suggestions that I made in our report was that we need ongoing monitoring; we need to keep these questions in Household Pulse for as long as the survey exists. And of course, we’re all hoping for the end of the pandemic, so beyond that, some of the major sources of information about food insufficiency or food insecurity in the United States come from a supplement to the Current Population Survey. And then also there are opportunities to put questions about food insecurity on the state administered Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance (BRFSS) survey. Some states are including some optional questions that include access to food, food insecurity, but not all states, so those questions, plus questions to identify transgender respondents, could be added on to the core (BRFSS) survey.

Are the standard responses to food insecurity, or even some of the measures taken during the pandemic such as the increased Child Tax Credit or increasing access to SNAP, effective with trans persons or do you need a more targeted approach?

That’s a great question. Trans people are parents and almost one out of five transgender people have been parents in their lifetime. But levels of parenting currently are lower among transgender people than we see in the general population and that’s due to many things, including the age of the transgender population, which tends to be much younger than the general population, so people haven’t started having kids yet. And of course, there are obstacles to family formation related to lack of insurance coverage or access to reproductive services. So, the Child Tax Credit I would say would probably be less helpful to transgender people as far as offsetting the economic impact of the pandemic on the community, which we already know was economically marginalized before the pandemic. Levels of discrimination, particularly in employment, are very high for transgender people. Until the Bostock Supreme Court decision, there was a very inconsistent patchwork of protections from employment discrimination for transgender people in the United States. So, it’s only been fairly recently that the courts have determined that non-discrimination protections should include transgender people in employment and should be across the country. Beyond that, I think educating employers and the public about those rights and making sure that there’s training and monitoring and compliance is going to take some time. So there’s economic marginalization. I still think there’s lots of discrimination that happens in terms of people trying to get work and to remain employed.

On increasing access to SNAP, again, without a pre-pandemic and post-pandemic data set, it’s really hard to know how access to SNAP might have changed across the pandemic. From what I can see in the Pulse data, it looks like there are many people who are income eligible for SNAP, who are transgender but who are not reporting benefits, just like there are people are cisgender who are income eligible who are not using SNAP. I think that just given experiences of discrimination in multiple domains of life that transgender people have experienced—like the doctor’s office, at school, perhaps rejection from family, harassment on the street, misgendering in libraries—I think that there needs to be extra outreach to the transgender community to make it as easy as possible for people to enroll. I think that also includes examining what the requirements are to apply and whether or not they require legal identification with gender markers that match a person’s presentation and names that seem aligned with a person’s presentation. Many transgender people don’t have legal identity documents that include both the correct name that they currently use and the gender marker designation that matches their identity. I suspect that is an obstacle for people in terms of enrolling for benefits in at least in some states.

Is there any legislation that you’re aware of at the federal or state level to try to make some of those accommodations?

I know at the state level there are efforts to change laws regarding requirements for identity marker change and the discussion comes up mostly in the context of voting. Not having an ID that matches your presentation is an obstacle to voting for transgender people in many places. And so, some legislators are aware of this and are concerned because they want to make sure that everyone in their state can vote and they want to make it easier for people to get access to appropriate identity documentation. I think there are probably also ways for state departments of health and human services to change requirements for benefits enrollment that would probably be simpler than trying to require a legislative action. What I can see in New York City is an LGBT outreach campaign that also indicates that people can enroll online, and they don’t even have to go into an office. And my understanding, talking with folks at a name change clinic in New York City, is that NYC no longer requires identity documents that include gender markers to apply for public benefits. NYC also offers a municipal id that allows applicants to select an appropriate gender designation for themselves. I think some states are thinking about ways to improve access to public benefits in general and we’re going to have a panel at Williams early March to talk about innovative strategies to try to increase access to food resources for transgender people so we can look at these examples of innovation and figure out how to make changes at all levels – including locally.

Do you feel like this is an issue that is sufficiently on the radar screens of national anti-hunger groups?

Before the Census Bureau started collecting data about transgender and LGB people on the Pulse survey, we started collecting food insufficiency data using the Census Bureau’s questions in a national survey of 18- to 40-year-olds and presented some of those findings at a Feeding America panel last June. And Brave Space Alliance, which is a trans-led organization in Chicago that has a food pantry participated in the panel as well. And there are some trans-led organizations that make providing food one of the many services that they offer, because they know that people don’t feel comfortable going to food banks where they might worry about being judged, misgendered or treated poorly.

There is innovation happening, but the fact that despite that, levels of food insufficiency are so high is still very disturbing. When I looked at food insecurity among LGBTQ youth of color in Boston, I found that people who were reporting food insecurity were more likely to report anxiety, depression and suicidality and other studies have since replicated these findings. It’s really a strain and part of a cluster of adversities that happen when people are marginalized.

The numbers are really disturbing

And particularly the racial inequality and the fact that food insufficiency is really high even among trans people with four-year degrees. That suggests that there may be diminishing returns on education for transgender people, just like we sometimes see among Black adults in the United States that a four-year college degree doesn’t seem to have the same return. And I think we’re seeing the same here because of gender minority-based stigma for transgender women, men, and nonbinary people, in general, as well as racism for transgender people of color.



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