Women, Welfare, and Domestic Violence

Article excerpt

Male violence is a problem for women of all income, race, and ethnic groups and affects an estimated three to four million women in the United States every year (Zorza, 1994: 383). This problem creates serious hardship for women. Most abused women experience fear and emotional pain, as well as physical injury. Children can also suffer from witnessing the physical abuse of their mothers (Jaffe et al., 1990; Johnston, 1994). Beyond depriving women of their basic right to safety, male violence is also very costly to society. The public pays billions of dollars for the direct and indirect costs of this problem, for health and criminal justice services (Cohen, 1994: 369; Laurence and Spalter-Roth, 1996).

This article focuses on poor women, their experience of male violence, and its impact on their lives. Although violence against all women must be studied, the situation of poor women needs particular attention because they have so few resources. Those who wish to leave violent relationships, particularly those with children, face serious problems gaining the financial stability they need. Government assistance can be critical for poor women. The previous welfare system, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), though in many ways inadequate, did provide a guaranteed safety net for all poor women. Unfortunately, the termination of poor women's entitlement to benefits in the recent welfare "reform" bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), P.L. 104-193, and other severe cuts to welfare programs have deprived poor women who are trying to escape abuse by their partners of a very important resource.

The purpose of this article is to examine the impact of the new welfare legislation on the lives of poor abused women who are enrolled in or qualify for welfare programs. I will examine what this legislation provides, or falls to provide, to battered women; I will also demonstrate how the new bill falls to address critical concerns of abused women, despite provisions that do address their situation. I argue that federal and state policymakers must make greater commitments to protect abused women and to help them rebuild their lives.

The policies for battered women put forward in the new welfare legislation reveal a great deal about the state's view of violence against women, including what commitments the state is willing to make to reduce male violence and whether it will honor them. One of the main justifications for government is the protection of citizens from harm. Until recently, by defining the home as part of the "private" sphere, which was cushioned from the law, in contrast to the "public" sphere, which was protected by legal codes, women abused by male partners fell outside of the purview of the law's protection. Beginning in the 1980s, however, due to pressure from a movement of activists in grass-roots and institutional settings, important changes took place. The federal government and states passed stricter laws outlawing and punishing violence against women, and local law enforcement began to make major changes, granting women temporary restraining orders against their abusers, creating tougher arrest policies, and training criminal justice personnel in how to intervene in cases of woman abuse (Cohen, 1994).

The efforts of this movement culminated in the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, landmark federal legislation that provides for improved prevention and prosecution of violent crimes against women and children, and for the care of victims. The law authorizes funds for increased enforcement to reduce violent crimes against women, including improving arrest procedures, tracking domestic violence cases, and prosecuting stalkers. The law also provides funding for prevention and victim services, including money to expand shelter services, educate judges about violence against women, develop legal advocacy service programs for victims of domestic violence, create more school- and community-based education programs, and improve research databases on violence against women (National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 1997). …