The significance of legalizing same-sex marriage for individuals who identify as sexual minorities is hard to overstate. Massachusetts was the first state to do so in 2004, and by the end of 2014, nearly half of all states had passed similar legislation. In June of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples equal rights to marry, thus legalizing same-sex marriage across all U.S. states. About 1.1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the U.S. were married to a same sex partner in 20171. While public support for same-sex marriage has increased over time2, 3, in a 2019 poll almost a third of the U.S. public continued to oppose it3 and some state legislatures have considered a range of anti-LGBT religious exemption bills after 20154. Thus, studying the impact that same-sex marriage legalization has had on society remains of significant public interest.
Our study aims to expand the limited evidence on the association between same-sex marriage legalization and employment outcomes. Using the nationally representative Medical Expenditures Panel Survey (MEPS) we investigated whether the legalization of same-sex marriage was associated with greater employment and income among U.S. sexual minorities aged 18 years or older. Specifically, we examined the association between the legalization of same-sex marriage which took place gradually between 2004 and 2014 across U.S. states and employment status, individual wage income, individual unearned income, and total individual and household income in 2015 among sexual minorities.
Evidence of the potential impact of same-sex marriage legalization on employment and income can inform policies in the U.S. related to the economic impact associated with expanding or limiting the rights of sexual minorities. It is also relevant for other countries where same-sex marriage remains illegal and the rights of sexual minorities are severely restricted. As one of the key components of socioeconomic status income also strongly correlates with health outcomes. We hypothesized that the benefits of same-sex marriage legalization in the long run may translate into improved socioeconomic opportunities and employment outcomes among sexual minorities in the U.S.
There is a strong theoretical foundation for hypothesizing an association between same-sex marriage legalization and employment outcomes through several pathways. First, marriage could lead to labor specialization and changes in productivity. Becker’s theory of the family5 posits that due to specialization of labor one partner may reduce their labor force participation and increase their household production (such as providing childcare and other services to the family) while the other may increase their labor force participation and work productivity. Studies based on the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) report a wage premium associated with marriage6, 7 and additional premium associated with fatherhood7 and have further shown that some of that premium is likely caused by increases in human capital and productivity7. Bartlett and Callahan8 have reported that role specialization and perceived need are the main predictors of the wage differential associated with marriage among white men. Related research has shown that married men and women are more likely to receive professional training compared to their unmarried counterparts9, which may lead to human capital accumulation and greater productivity and income.
Second, independently from the effects of productivity changes, marriage may affect how employees are perceived and treated at the workplace which, in turn, may impact earnings. In an experiment by Jordan and Zitek10, employees perceived married male job applicants more suitable and married female applicants less suitable by employees with expectations for lower performance, compared to their single counterparts. However, it has also been suggested that income may be endogenous11–14; for example, people with higher income may be perceived as more attractive marriage partners. These associations have been conceptualized and tested among heterosexual couples but there is a lack of evidence on whether they might extend to sexual minorities.
Third, same-sex marriage legalization may improve employment outcomes indirectly, through a wide range of positive marriage-related benefits, including companionship, increased commitment15, emotional support and perception of equality and equal rights16, and expressive and assertive value17. Further, marriage provides legal benefits and financial stability to same-sex couples15, 16, leads to higher rates of health insurance, lower taxation, social security, and immigration benefits17. Studies of heterosexual couples have also shown that marriage increases coping resources 18, serves as a mental health protective factor19, 20, and increases overall happiness 21, psychological and subjective well-being21, 22, all of which might predict employment and income.
Finally, same-sex marriage legalization may improve employment outcomes independent of the effect of marriage. A large body of research has documented hiring discrimination and inequalities in earnings associated with sexual orientation. Gay men have been shown to earn less and lesbians more, compared to otherwise similar heterosexual men and women10, 23, 24. Similarly, Waite et al. 25 as well as Cerf 26 report that partnered gay men earn less than their coupled heterosexual counterparts and both, single and coupled lesbian women earn more than heterosexual women. Waite et al.25 also report that bisexual men and women earn significantly less than all other sexual orientation groups. In addition, the minority stress theory27 suggests higher risk for psychological distress among sexual and other minorities, and research extending that theory has linked minority stressors with increased psychological distress and reduced work satisfaction among sexual minorities28. Therefore, in a social and policy climate where sexual minorities perceive or experience work discrimination and are at greater risk for psychosocial stressors, legalization of same-sex marriage may contribute to an overall culture of inclusivity, reduced work discrimination, and perceptions of equality, which may translate into greater employment opportunities, work performance, productivity and income.
The empirical evidence to date on employment, earnings and income associated with same-sex marriage is limited and mixed. A study in Sweden29 found that entering into a registered partnership was associated with 12% and 15% reduction in earnings among women and men, respectively. A recent study30 based on the American Community Survey found that same-sex marriage legalization in the U.S. was associated with higher rates of employment among both men and women, a 2.8% increase in hourly earnings among men, but not with a change in earnings among women.
Unearned income may be also be affected by legalization of same-sex marriage through tax benefits (e.g., lower taxes and greater savings which could be invested leading to a stream of future income), access to family business income, qualifying for government benefits (such as disability and social security income), benefits through a spouse’s employer (including worker’s compensation and retirement plan in the event of a spouse’s death), and more generally marriage increases financial stability making it more likely to invest in income generating assets. These expected associations stem from the existing laws that provide direct financial benefits to married couples, yet there is scarce evidence that they carry over to same-sex couples. However, a U.S. based study projects that same-sex marriage will lead to an increase in unearned (retirement) income among the bottom three-fifths but a decrease in the top two-fifths of the income distribution31. Taken together, these findings point to the need to generate additional evidence of the long-term aggregate effect of same-sex marriage legalization on employment and income among U.S. sexual minorities.