Welfare's Domestic Violence: The Rules Ending Welfare as We Knew It Will Trap Women in Abusive Situations

By Gonnerman, Jennifer | The Nation, March 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

Welfare's Domestic Violence: The Rules Ending Welfare as We Knew It Will Trap Women in Abusive Situations


Gonnerman, Jennifer, The Nation


When Bernice Haynes tried to get off welfare by enrolling in a job training program, her boyfriend tossed her textbooks in the trash. He refused to watch their two children while she was in class. And he would pick fights with her when she tried to study.

"Before the final exam, we fought all weekend from Friday to Monday morning," says Haynes, 31, who lives on Chicago's West Side. Haynes never got the chance to open her books over the weekend. "When I went in that Monday, I was exhausted--from the constant verbal abuse, the put-downs, from trying to keep myself alive--that test wasn't on my mind." She flunked. Haynes, who had been attending classes for a year and was trying to become a licensed nurse, was kicked out of the program--just twelve weeks before graduation.

Haynes is one of thousands of domestic violence victims whose abusive partner tried to thwart her efforts to escape poverty. And for women in the same situation, this struggle is about to get much tougher. The most comprehensive study to date--conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy--found that 60 percent of women on A.F.D.C. said they had been physically abused by their boyfriend or spouse at some point. The Better Homes Fund, a Massachusetts nonprofit, recently studied 409 women on A.F.D.C. and found that 63 percent reported being assaulted by their male partner.

As the welfare "reform" goes into effect and A.F.D.C. is abolished, domestic violence victims will be among those hardest hit. The new welfare legislation includes strict time limits governing how quickly recipients must move from welfare to work. But "it's potentially dangerous for domestic violence victims," says Jody Raphael, director of the Chicago-based Taylor Institute, who was one of the first people to study the relationship between household abuse and welfare. "It's predicated on the idea that women become dependent and lazy and really just need a kick in the butt to get out into the labor market. But if you're a past or current domestic violence victim, it'll be exceedingly difficult. Women need support and time to get out of the [abusive] relationship, which they're not going to have under the bill."

The welfare bill's strict time limits range from two months to five years and dictate how long recipients have to find a job, enroll in a training program or start community service before being erased from the welfare rolls. "The rigidity of time limits...is not going to be workable," says Martha Davis, legal director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. It "is likely to result in human tragedy if women are stalked in the workplace but feel they can't change jobs or stop going to work...because they'll lose their benefits--or if women in abusive relationships feel they can't leave because there is no safety net for them any longer."

Across the country, activists are fighting to soften the blow of the welfare legislation by urging states to adopt the Family Violence Option as part of their plans. Sponsored by Senators Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Patty Murray of Washington, this amendment to the 1996 welfare bill urges states to identify victims of battering, refer them to counseling and waive any requirements that unfairly penalize them. So far, twenty-four of the forty states that have submitted welfare plans adopted part or all of this provision or mentioned domestic violence. "The Family Violence Option is the first time in federal law that the connection between violence and poverty has been recognized," says Davis, who is lobbying hard for it. "Violence makes women poor and it keeps women poor. It's critical that states address that."

At first, Bernice Haynes didn't realize her boyfriend of thirteen years was sabotaging her efforts to get off welfare. She recalls justifying the "whuppings" she received by blaming herself. And she remembers how he used to dissuade her from studying. "I was going to give you some money" for dinner, he would say. …

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