How Economic Insecurity Enables Abuse

One in four women. In mid-December the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report shining a spotlight on the physical and sexual abuse that women in our country face. One in four women has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. While violence may not be ‘contagious,’ it is certainly infectious, leaving our country with a pandemic affecting more than just victims, but also sweeping across communities and destroying lives and livelihoods. To fully address this problem, we must take a deeper look into the economics that enable and encourage this abuse to be so pervasive.

In 2003, the CDC assessed the cost of intimate partner violence in this country at $5.8 billion each year. These costs arise out of medical care and counseling primarily, plus lost productivity from work inside and outside the home and additional costs for lost earnings over a lifetime. While the current report does not address the financial toll, it would stand to reason that costs have risen since then.

The suffering and tragic deaths women face at the hands of their batterers are certainly enough to heighten the conversation, and the profound economic stress and financial disruption occurring in the lives of women and their children, who are our neighbors, our friends, and family members should turn up the volume for all of us. Not surprisingly, the incidence of domestic violence increases as the soundness of our national economy decreases with rising unemployment and falling household incomes. When the financial pressures on a household rise, the likelihood that batterers will exhibit worsening violent behaviors also rises.

So, ‘they’ say she should just leave. “She should just leave” is not and never will be a simple solution.

Too often, women stay in abusive relationships because they cannot see a path to economic security for themselves and their children. Money, even money for rent, food or clothing, becomes a weapon used to control and manipulate. Without access to a debit card or check book, having the cash in hand becomes a serious roadblock to leaving.

When survivors do leave, they remain vulnerable to financial attacks from the batterer, are often unable to keep their current employment and protect their credit reports or bank accounts. Women may find their credit and credit ratings damaged by batterers attempting to ‘force them to return’ by cutting off credit or using the survivor’s name to run up debt, forge checks or falsify documents in real estate transactions. Some of these women find themselves in trouble with the law for check kiting or forgery, actions actually perpetrated by their batterers or by victims under duress. Under the extreme, albeit not as rare as you might think, circumstances when a survivor must change her residence or even her name to escape her batterer, she also leaves behind her work history and references, access to gap-fillers like unemployment insurance and even contributions paid into Social Security.

WOW’s new report, Living below the Line: Economic Security and America’s Families, underscores the precarious economics facing American women in general, many of whom are unable to cover the costs of their basic needs. The findings show 60 percent of single women and 74 percent of single mothers are living in a state of economic insecurity.

Understanding the depth of financial abuse that accompanies physical abuse and responding to both in tandem offers survivors greater protection and a more solid foothold as they rebuild their lives and their futures.

Leaving women precariously perched between violence and economic insecurity is simply unconscionable. Law enforcement, judges and other professionals working with survivors can take steps quickly to assess the economic as well as physical security needs of survivors. Only when we protect the financial welfare of survivors, prepare them to meet their basic needs and punish the batterers who abuse the financial health of their victims have we created a permanent path out the maddening wave of violence surrounding us now.

Wider Opportunities for Women, with a number of national allies, works with domestic violence professionals across the country as we build an understanding of the links between financial and physical security and the concurrent need to protect and strengthen both through responsive, responsible policies and programs. Through this work to empower and enable women, we are working to fight the cycle of abuse.

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