Marriage Push Leads to Shoves: Abusive Men Keep Women on Welfare – Friday, March 16, 2001 – Published in The Concord Monitor
I still remember my first domestic violence client. She was a married woman. When her husband drank heavily on weekends, he would grab her by the hair with one hand while punching her in the face with the other hand. He regularly gave her black eyes. He broke her collarbone. He told her she was a little slut who deserved the punishment she received.
When my client attempted to leave the relationship, her husband physically attempted to stop her. He punched in the hood of her car. He took the top of a rubbish can and threw it at her vehicle, breaking a tail-light. As she drove away from her home, he got in his car to follow. When my client stopped to avoid further chase, her husband told her that he intended to burn down her mobile home and kill her and himself.
I think of this case when I consider efforts by the government to oversell the idea that the reason many women are on welfare is because they refuse to stay with their husbands. The fact is, for many women on welfare, the presence of men in their lives keeps them dependent on government help rather than helping them give it up.
For my client, fortunately, welfare was part of the answer to a better life. She managed to get a restraining order and a divorce. She was able to pull her life back together. The fact the she and her children could get temporary help from welfare made it possible for her to leave the relationship.
But efforts to pressure women to stay in bad marriages continue. Some members of Congress have announced that a new emphasis on marriage should be a major part of welfare reform. Rep. Wally Herger of California, chairman of the House Ways and Means welfare subcommittee, proposed that states be required to spend part of their welfare money on pro-marriage activities.
The idea that welfare recipients are trapped in poverty primarily due to being unmarried is flawed. Poor women do not need government ayatollahs telling them to get married. They can decide for themselves when to get married. Government cannot legislate relationships and force people to love each other.
A new body of research raises big questions about the marriage emphasis in welfare reform. Organized and popularized by Jody Raphael of the Center for Impact Research in Chicago, the data show that the prevalence of domestic violence in the lives of many welfare recipients has been grossly underestimated. for many, the path from welfare to work has been blocked by the sabotage of violent abusers.
The typical welfare recipient is not an unattached single female head of household. More often than not, welfare recipients are at least intermittently involved with men, many of whom are physically and emotionally abusive. These abusive me, motivated by the need to possess and control their partners, intentionally undermine their partners’ steps toward economic improvement in order to maintain dependency.
Researchers have consistently found that 20-30 percent of women receiving welfare benefits are current victims of domestic violence. About two-thirds are past victims.
Abusers’ sabotage takes many forms. They forbid women from getting jobs or going to school. They cause school failure and dropout by destroying books and homework assignments. They hide car keys, refuse to give rides, slash tires and mess up child care arrangements. They traumatize partners by physical violence, sexual assault, and emotional abuse.
Abusers will often try to prevent their partners from using birth control. They exercise control by keeping their women pregnant. That way the woman will be less likely to attract other men and will be kept out of the labor market. Contraception is a threat to abusers who think women use birth control so they can have relationships with other men and not get caught.
It Gets Worse
When women separate from their abusers and attempt to leave the relationship, abusers escalate their tactics. Many abusers stalk and threaten their former partners.
Law Professor Martha Mahoney coined the phrase “separation assault” to described abuser efforts to prevent leaving and force return. If the abuser cannot stop the separation, he will focus on punishing the woman for ending the relationship.
The domestic violence victim is a hostage, trying to find safe haven between accommodation and resistance. The domestic violence-related murders we routinely experience are the most graphic, extreme aspect of separation assault. Less well-known are the abusers’ efforts to regain control by calling the welfare department to make allegations of welfare fraud and child abuse.
A client of mine, previously on welfare, obtained a copy of a log kept by her former husband about her whereabouts once they separated. The log reflected his active stalking of her. In military-like fashion, he detailed her comings and goings, her visitors and his suspicions about what was going on inside her apartment.
This stalking went on for an extended time as my client had been afraid to take any assertive steps. When he had the opportunity, her ex-husband used to flash his guns and knives to intimidate her. Even years after they divorced, he continued a form of low-level warfare to gain ground in his never-ending custody quarrel.
Reliving the Trauma
The net effect of the abuser’s sabotage is to undermine self-sufficiency and to force women out of work or education. The abuser fears a loss of control. He actually prefers his woman to be on welfare because he is threatened and shamed that his breadwinner role may be usurped.
Leaving an abusive relationship is often a protracted battle to escape captivity. The battle takes a huge toll on domestic violence victims. A significant percentage suffer symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms include chronic anxiety, memory loss, insomnia, dissociation, nightmares and flashbacks during which the person relives the trauma as if it were actually taking place.
Trauma and depression can undermine women’s ability to concentrate and function effectively in the work world and in training programs. The symptoms may continue to be experienced long after the abuser is physically gone from the victim’s life. Trauma survivors have trouble planning or believing in the future.
In considering how domestic violence affects welfare recipients, special attention should be paid to psychological and emotional abuse. Many welfare recipients suffer from poor reading skills. If, over a period of years, they have been repeatedly told that they are unintelligent and incompetent, they are likely to experience significant vocational and intellectual deficits.
To its credit, our state Department of Health and Human Services elected to implement the Family Violence Option under welfare reform. This option allows an individualized and sensitive response to the needs of domestic violence victims.
Domestic violence and welfare have usually been seen as separate and distinct issues. Neither conservatives nor liberals have appreciated the full implications of the interconnections.
Assuming marriage will be a cure-all ignores what we know about domestic violence. Even worse, such an emphasis may work to pressure women into staying in abusive relationships.