Anyone who has ever left an abusive relationship will tell you it’s not easy. It takes courage, yes. But it also takes money, connections, and community resources. For victims living in poverty and collecting government assistance, leaving an abuser can feel impossible.
There is a clear connection between poverty, public assistance, and domestic violence. But how did we get here? And why aren’t the current financial assistance programs working for abuse survivors?
How Poverty Impacts Domestic Violence
On average, one in three women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. But those who face systemic inequity are at an increased risk. Women of color, LGBTQ+ people, and low-income people are at the highest risk.
Poverty is one of the most significant risk factors for experiencing domestic abuse. Women who face extreme economic hardship often do not have the means or resources to escape the violence. By some estimates, as many as 60% of all women who report domestic abuse receive some sort of government assistance.
Simply put, those living in poverty are at greater risk of experiencing abuse, but have fewer options to successfully leave the abuser and become independent.
Public Assistance is Failing Families
Today’s state public assistance structures are based on the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) policy, enacted in 1996. This policy replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had provided financial assistance since 1935 to families with children living in poverty.
The goal of TANF and other programs like it was to “revamp the welfare system,” encouraging more people to get back to work and fewer to rely on public assistance. However, TANF also gave states a far greater say in how federal funding was allocated to those living in poverty.
Where AFDC clearly defined what qualified as a “needy family,” the revamped TANF left that definition up to each state. As a result, states could decide to use public assistance funding for “job training programs,” childcare initiatives, or programs that support families with incomes well above the poverty line.
In many cases, that “state freedom” meant economic resources were taken away from families and allocated to other programs instead. Financial assistance is harder to collect and even harder to keep long-term. From that standpoint, the public assistance programs in many states fail the families most in need. Without financial assistance, many victims of domestic violence are trapped in abusive relationships, unable to support themselves or their children.
In many cases, minorities and underserved populations receive the least assistance, even though these populations are at higher risk of financial insecurity, housing instability, and domestic abuse.
In fact, the total caseload of people impacted by TANF (that is, the number of people receiving adequate financial assistance) has declined by 76% since 1996, when TANF became law.
How Public Assistance Can Help Survivors
Financial security is crucial to help survivors leave abusive relationships and create thriving, independent futures. In one study, an estimated 67% of abuse survivors returned to an abusive relationship because of economic concerns.
Public assistance can change the course of these survivors’ lives. But only if implemented correctly, with more focus on supporting those who leave abusive environments.
One policy that was intended to supplement the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is the Family Violence Option (FVO). Added to the TANF program in the ‘90s, the FVO required public assistance providers to screen for domestic violence and provide support and resources for survivors. FVO also allows victims to receive waivers for work requirements and other conditions, letting victims of domestic abuse stay on public assistance longer.
While FVO sounds like a great program, its implementation is lacking. Currently, 42 states and the District of Columbia have FVO policies in place, but very few people receive waivers. Most, including the majority of domestic violence victims receiving public assistance, are not given any special accommodations or services to help them leave abusive situations.
We know that economic hardship keeps far too many victims trapped in abusive environments. If more survivors received proper screening, financial assistance, and access to resources, they could change the future for themselves and their children.
How Can You Help?
Because public assistance is so limited, many abuse survivors rely heavily on nonprofit organizations and other non-government entities for help. You can support these organizations by donating your time, money, or other resources if you’re able.
At WodBottom, we partner with a local nonprofit, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS). This organization supports domestic abuse survivors and their families through emergency shelter services, emotional and mental health counseling, and access to valuable resources. A portion of every purchase you make goes toward helping this incredible organization.Find your local domestic violence shelter here.