Low-income Victims of Domestic Violence in the U.S. Need More Help

A new study released last week reaffirms concerns about the the lack of options for low-income Americans facing domestic violence. Not Enough: What TANF Offers Family Violence Victims, a joint report by Legal Momentum and the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV), shows the difficulty that victims of domestic violence face in accessing government assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

TANF is most widely known for the cash benefits (i.e., welfare) it gives to those in poverty, the same benefits the study calls “essential resources” for those who are suffering from domestic violence.  TANF contains specific provisions to ensure those being victimized can easily–in theory–receive cash benefits, housing, referrals, etc., which is done by using the Family Violence Option (FVO) that allows states to grant “waivers that exempt victims from TANF requirements.

Unfortunately, the FVO is not presently being utilized to its fullest extent, as the “Not Enough” study highlights nearly 600 survey responses they received from staff members from programs that work with those affected by domestic violence. When TANF workers fail or refuse to grant the FVO waivers, it creates several barriers preventing victims from finding help.

Without the FVO, victims have to abide by the same stipulations as those seeking welfare who are not suffering abuse, such as having to reveal the father of children, having to maintain steady employment and not being allowed to exceed the TANF five-year limit. It isn’t hard to imagine why such requirements would be difficult to meet while being abused, and without TANF benefits many low-income victims simply do not have the resources or support needed to secure the safety they so badly need.

The study outlines ways to ensure that domestic violence victims get access to FVO vouchers, such as increasing training for TANF workers to recognize domestic violence and not requiring victims to present documentation of their abuse (as at least 18 states now require, according to a Government Accountability Office report.)

The report includes more than bad news. TANF is shown to be very powerful when it does work. One respondent wrote:

I had a case where a client showed up for an interview, was referred to me, picked up her children and was helped to flee, all in six hours. She literally did not have diapers or a bottle even. She was given transportation vouchers, clothing vouchers, diaper vouchers … then TANF put her up in a hotel in a new community and  helped her get into shelter there.

Experiences like this show that government programs can, in fact, be an effective and efficient way to help low-income victims of domestic violence. TANF absolutely plays a critical role, and if we keep sharing best practices, like this study promotes, we can realize its full potential and its intent to provide access to resources for so many victimized women and children.

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Erica Wheeler lives and writes in Chicago, Illinois, but was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a degree in Public Policy and has spent time working to reform the sexual assault policy on campus. Currently, Erica volunteers with Rape Victim Advocates and is passionate about giving a voice to survivors. She claims to be new to feminism and has a cat named Henry.