SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: US legalisation has boosted employment of both partners in same-sex couples, as discrimination against sexual minorities falls

16 Apr 2019

Following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in all US states, both partners in same-sex couples have been more likely to be employed thanks to a decrease in discrimination towards sexual minorities. That is the central finding of new research by Dario Sansone of Georgetown University, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019.

Progress towards marriage equality within the United States has been extremely rapid in the last 20 years. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalise same-sex marriage (SSM). Following its example, more and more states introduced SSM until the ruling in 2015 of the US Supreme Court legalised SSM at the federal level.

The impact of SSM legalisation on employment is unclear ex ante. Access to marriage may have led to increased commitment among partners and lower economic uncertainty, as well as shifts in taxation, health insurance benefits and adoption laws. These changes could have discouraged individuals in a same-sex relationship from both being employed.

Conversely, homophobic sentiments are still widespread. Gays and lesbians commonly experience discrimination from employers, consumers and co-workers. Therefore, SSM legalisation could have led to an increase in employment among gays and lesbians if it had driven a shift in social norms and a reduction in discrimination against sexual minorities.

 

Positive impact of same-sex marriage legalisation on employment

The new paper by Dario Sansone uses data from the American Community Survey to compare same-sex couples in states that introduced marriage equality with same-sex couples in states that had yet to legalise SSM.

Based on these comparisons, the author concludes that individuals in gay and lesbian couples were more likely to be both employed following the legalisation of SSM. This increase (2.4 percentage points) is comparable to the passage of unilateral divorce laws or the introduction of the contraceptive pill.

Sansone obtains similar results when examining the individual probability of being employed, or when comparing opposite-sex and same-sex couples within the same states over time.

As Figure 1 shows, the main findings are also supported using different data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Moreover, the research finds that the positive economic outcomes among same-sex couples were not at the expense of opposite-sex households.

 

Figure 1: Effect of SSM legalisation

 

Discrimination as the underlying mechanism

The study provides evidence supporting the hypothesis that SSM legalisation led to lower discrimination in the labour market, thus increasing employment among gay and lesbian workers.

  • The estimated increase in employment does not seem to be concentrated among married same-sex couples, but it extends to unmarried same-sex couples, singles and ‘closeted’ cohabiting individuals who hide their sexual preferences.
  • The proportion of gay and lesbian workers in male-dominated occupations has increased since SSM legalisation.
  • There were substantial and long lasting declines in Google searches for homophobic terms following the legalisation of SSM.

Policy conclusions

Analogous to the increase in female labour force participation witnessed in recent decades, legalising SSM led to higher integration of same-sex couples in the workforce. A 2% increase in the probability of being employed for 5% of the US labour force (a rough estimate of the gay and lesbian population) may have resulted in 160,000 additional individuals employed.

Many countries in Latin America have recently legalised SSM or are considering changing their marriage laws. At the same time, homosexuality is ostracised or barely tolerated in most countries in Africa and South East Asia. This study suggests that such laws may affect labour market outcomes in these countries, and it provides an economic rationale to support marriage equality.

This study also suggests that the legal recognition of same-sex couples by US institutions is more than just words, but a powerful act. Each legislative decision has sent a signal to employers, co-workers, consumers and LGBT members that social norms have changed and that discrimination is no longer tolerated.

 

Dario Sansone

Georgetown University | ds1289@georgetown.edu