Welfare Bill Further Endangers Domestic Violence Survivors

by Lisa Bennett-Haigney
Membership Administrative Assistant

Photo: NOW Membership Vice President Karen Johnson, far left, joined Gloria Johnson, Ellie Smeal, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NOW President Patricia Ireland, Ann Thompson-Cook, the Rev. Carlton Veazey and NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy, far right, in demonstrating against welfare cuts that could prove deadly to women.

As many as 80 percent of women on public assistance are currently suffering from domestic violence or are survivors who left their abusers, according to a study by Jody Raphael, director of the progressive Taylor Institute in Chicago. This critical intersection of domestic abuse and poverty demands priority consideration as states prepare plans under the new welfare law, NOW President Patricia Ireland said.

Disregarding this link "could mean a death sentence for tens of thousands of women and children who face domestic violence," Ireland said. "These women are desperate to survive and often public assistance is an absolute lifeline for them and their children. We cannot let that line be cut."

The welfare repeal bill passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton places 12.8 million people on welfare at serious risk of sinking further into poverty and homelessness. An estimated 80 percent of the poor are families headed by single mothers in their 20s and 30s. Block grants administered by states replace the federal safety net that for 60 years guaranteed assistance to poor parents and their children.

NOW activists are organizing to advocate that states implement the optional Family Violence Amendment in their welfare plans in order to protect and assist survivors of family violence who depend upon welfare. NOW will monitor state welfare plans and evaluate their efforts to implement the most important provisions of the Family Violence Amendment. The provisions include screening applicants for current or past domestic violence, referring women to counseling and support services and providing waivers on requirements such as time limits.

To date, of the 26 states that have submitted new welfare plans to conform to the recently passed federal law, only six have included any of the family violence options.

A Way Out
Kate Engle, a domestic violence survivor and spokesperson for the National Welfare Rights Union, said that there is a way out for women who face abuse "and it is called welfare." Medical assistance was crucial when she was badly beaten and later suffered debilitating illnesses, Engle said, and other financial assistance was essential in keeping her family together -- but apart from her abuser.

In addition to the Taylor Institute study, other studies demonstrate the dire need for the Family Violence Amendment's provisions. In a Better Homes Fund of Massachusetts survey of more than 400 poor and homeless women and their children, 63 percent of the women reported serious physical abuse by male partners. Many of the women living in low-income housing were only a step away from homelessness, and welfare often made the difference.

Raphael's study, "Prisoners of Abuse: Domestic Violence and Welfare Receipt," documented how domestic violence makes and keeps women poor. Surveys from grassroots welfare-to-work programs around the country revealed the ways in which domestic violence complicates and prolongs the transition from welfare to employment and self-sufficiency. One of these roadblocks is the deliberate interference of the abuser.

Jealousy, Sabotage Not Unusual
In a survey of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients in Passaic County, N.J., 49 percent of the participants said their abusive boyfriends discouraged education or training efforts and 16 percent of the men actually prevented the women from obtaining education or training.

"Threatened by educational and self-help programs, these men frequently resort to violence and emotional coercion to prevent their partners from gaining education and employment," Raphael said. Of the participants who dropped out of a Chicago employment training program within a year, more than two-thirds were in violent relationships, she added.

The study details methods of sabotage by abusers, such as turning off alarm clocks, destroying books and homework assignments, hiding women's clothing and inflicting violence the night before a key exam or interview. One abuser cut off a woman's hair, knowing she would be too embarrassed to return to her GED class.

Instances of stalking at classes, job training and job sites are also prevalent, Raphael found. In a University of Minnesota-Duluth survey of battered women, 56 percent of the women reported they had been harassed at work by telephone or in person by their abuser, and 21 percent said that such harassment occurred frequently.

Raphael's study additionally addresses post-traumatic stress disorder as a roadblock in a battered woman's recovery process. Psychological scars resulting from years of violence, such as difficulty with concentration, persistent fear and depression, serve as barriers to successful job training, education and employment, the study reports.

Kathleen, a survivor of domestic violence, said the emotional and mental trauma are especially long-lasting. She likened her experiences to those of a prisoner of war: "The terror and torture is more than anyone should ever have to endure. Welfare services have to be in place to help victims escape."

Data indicate that in addition to the difficulty of locating shelter and child care, a swift move to the job market can place undue stress on domestic violence victims. The study suggests broadening the definition of "work" to include "work related activities" and offering therapeutic and vocational rehabilitative services for battered women in all welfare-to-work programs.

For an updated version of "Prisoners of Abuse: Domestic Violence and Welfare Receipt," contact the Taylor Institute, 915 N. Wolcott, Chicago, IL 60622, or call 312-342-5510.

Legislative Progress
Despite the threat of decreased assistance to women under the new welfare law, there has been recent progress in the response to violence against women.

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