02/16/2012 03:14 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

For Same-Sex Couples, a Tale of Two Paths to Parenting

The weekly adventures of Modern Family's gay parents Mitchell and Cameron highlight a common contemporary media image of gay parenting: wealthy, urban, white gay men raising an adopted child. However, U.S. Census Bureau data suggest that same-sex couples raising children are substantially more diverse than these media images. Notably, the data show big differences between same-sex couples who adopt and other same-sex couples. While those who adopt look more like Mitch and Cam, those who are raising biological or stepchildren are younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, and have lower incomes.

The Cam and Mitchell version of adoptive parenting is actually not yet the norm among same-sex couples. While more than 15,000 are currently raising an adopted child under age 18 (according to my analyses of data from the 2010 American Community Survey), nearly 74,000 same-sex couples are raising a biological or stepchild. Demographically, Cam and Mitchell are actually pretty typical of same-sex adoptive parents, but same-sex couples raising biological or stepchildren have substantially different demographic characteristics.

For example, same-sex couples with biological or step children show evidence of economic disadvantage. In 2010 they had lower average household incomes than their different-sex counterparts ($82,000 vs. $92,500), and were more than twice as likely to be receiving public assistance.

Conversely, adoptive same-sex parents are economically advantaged. They had an average household income of nearly $157,000 compared to $104,000 among their different-sex counterparts.

Several demographic characteristics explain why so many same-sex couples with biological or stepchildren face economic difficulties. First, they are relatively young. On average, same-sex parents raising biological or stepchildren are nearly two years younger than comparable different-sex couples and six years younger than same-sex adoptive parents.

Many individuals in same-sex couples raising biological or stepchildren have lower levels of education. Among individuals in same-sex couples who have less than a high school degree, one in three (33 percent) are raising biological or stepchildren, while just 5 percent have an adopted child. It's the opposite for those with a college degree. Less than one in ten (9 percent) are raising biological or stepchildren, but a third of those parents have an adopted child.

Raising biological or stepchildren is substantially more common among racial and ethnic minorities, but adoption is most common among white people. African Americans in same-sex couples are three times more likely, and Latinos and Latinas 2.5 times more likely, than their white counterparts to have biological or stepchildren (29 percent, 23 percent, and 9 percent, respectively). But white same-sex couples with children are three times as likely as same-sex couples with a non-white partner to be raising an adopted child (18 percent vs. 6 percent).

Same-sex couples with biological and stepchildren are more common in the socially conservative South and Midwest, where LGBT people likely come out later in life and are more likely to have children from a different-sex relationship earlier in life. In those regions 14 percent of same-sex couples are raising a biological or stepchild, compared with just 11 percent in the Northeast and West. It is an odd irony that social conservatism likely contributed to the formation of many of these LGBT families.

Conversely, adoption among same-sex couples is more common in the socially liberal Northeast and West, where the legal climate is more supportive of LGBT families. Among same-sex couples with children, 20 percent have an adopted child in the Northeast, compared with 14 percent in the West and just 12 percent in the Midwest and 11 percent in the South.

The demographic diversity that we observe among same-sex parents should prompt us to broaden our understanding of the most pressing issues facing LGBT families. They likely face challenges associated with economic disadvantage including poverty, health care, nutrition, and access to quality schools.

The differences between adoptive parents and those who report having biological or stepchildren also raise important concerns. Adoption and reproductive technologies are expensive and may not be economically feasible for many LGBT people. Increasing LGBT access to adoption and fostering through public agencies would offer more affordable alternatives to those who wish to be parents. So, too, would providing coverage to LGBT people for reproductive technologies as a routine component of health insurance policies.

The fact that Americans have embraced a gay couple and their baby as a genuine modern American family demonstrates a growing acceptance toward LGBT parenting. But as positive as this image may be, a complete picture of LGBT parents in the U.S. would show a community with substantial socioeconomic and racial/ethnic diversity. Policy makers and LGBT advocates must look beyond narrow media images and consider issues of economic disadvantage and broad community access to adoption and reproductive technologies as they pursue policies that will most help LGBT families in the future.