Congressman Robert Pittenger (R-NC) is once again attempting to defend his opposition to employment protections for LGBT people, this time by citing a narrow study that actually provides no data about the need or impact of such protections.
Earlier this month, Pittenger told ThinkProgress that he believes the government shouldn’t “micromanage people’s lives and businesses,” and that a requirement not to discriminate against LGBT workers would “impose on the freedoms we enjoy.” After other outlets began reporting on his comments, Pittenger began to deny making them, prompting ThinkProgress to publish the complete audio of the conversation and confirm that he had compared the right to fire LGBT people to the right to smoke cigarettes on private property.
In an extended comment Pittenger shared with the Charlotte Observer, he offered a different justification for opposing the protections — the idea that they are not necessary:
Our free market has spoken loudly on the issue of workplace discrimination. According to the Human Rights Campaign, almost 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have policies, of their own volition, which ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Economists Geoffrey Clarke and Purvi Sevak have found that gay men now earn more, on average, than their heterosexual peers. Should we now make that market less free?
Reiterating that he does not believe that “additional government intervention would be helpful or advisable,” he described the “Employee Non-Discrimination Act” as “bad legislation.” (The E in ENDA actually stands for “Employment,” not “Employee.”)
Pittenger is not the first conservative to cite the Clarke and Sevak study, published last year in Economic Letters. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote last November that Clarke and Sevak had proven that the “gay wage penalty” had disappeared and that “as far back as 2002, for example, gay men were outearning their nongay peers by 2.45 percent.” But that’s actually not what the study found. As its coauthor Purvi Sevak, associate professor of economics at Hunter College, told ThinkProgress, “The only attention it has gotten is the wrong kind.”
The study used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1988 to 2007, but that data came with many limitations. For example, the survey did not ask how participants actually identified their sexual orientation; it only asked about their sexual behavior — and only invited men to discuss same-sex behaviors. It also only assessed income levels at the household. Thus, it was a survey of only men living alone, and of the 1747 respondents, only 77 individuals from that group indicated that they engaged in mostly same-sex behavior.
When Sevak and Clarke controlled for variables like race and education, they did find that the men who were prominently engaging in same-sex behavior were doing better, but Sevak told ThinkProgress that this was only indicative of a trend, not a fair comparison about how men with different orientations might compete in the same occupation. For example, Sevak explained, “It could be that gay men maybe don’t go into farming, or that there might be a disproportionate share of them in occupations that pay more than other occupations.” In other words, the study doesn’t necessarily compare a gay farmer to a straight farmer — it might very well be comparing an urban gay lawyer to a rural straight farmer.
Furthermore, Sevak stressed, the study “does not provide evidence for or against discrimination.” The data available did not explain the reason for the income trend they found, but it is “consistent with the advance of nondiscrimination protections.” Gay men’s salaries could be improving because of nondiscrimination protections, not in spite of them. “We are not saying that there’s no discrimination,” Sevak said, adding that it could also well be that the individuals who felt comfortable disclosing their same-sex behaviors over the past 20 years could have come from more privileged families or enjoyed different levels of family acceptance based on their socioeconomic status or ethnicity, which would also have contributed to their income advantage.
Moreover, because the men who contributed to the survey were not asked about how they actually identify their sexual orientation, it’s not even possible to tell how open or out at work they might have been. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation rarely happens based on knowledge of private sexual behavior, but instead based on openness of identity.
And of course, the study offers no information related to male same-sex couples, male same-sex couples who might be raising children, lesbian and bi women, or transgender people. A new report from the Movement Advancement Project outlines the many obstacles LGBT people face to financial well-being, finding that across many demographics, they were more likely to be living in poverty and less likely to report that they were thriving financially.
“Throughout my adult life, I have had an open, non-discriminatory policy toward all, and at various times have employed people with different viewpoints and lifestyles, including homosexual orientation,” Pittenger said in the conclusion of his statement. “Government intervention is not the best solution for matters of the heart.” It is that very government intervention — in the form of various nondiscrimination protections — that has actually been leveling the playing field for LGBT people, an outcome he simultaneously lauds as he condemns the policies as “bad legislation.”