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"Domestic Violence as a Barrier to Employment"

July/August 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

It all started in Poverty & Race back in 1994, when Taylor Institute published the results of its research study which tracked the prevalence of current domestic violence within the caseload at the Chicago Commons Employment Training Center, a comprehensive welfare-to-work program. Poverty and Race readers responded by contacting Taylor Institute with their experiences. Some programs began to track data, which enabled our project to publish two reports summarizing the experiences of program providers and providing information about how current and past domestic violence serves as a barrier to low-income girls and women getting into the labor market.

On the strength of this evidence, Senators Paul Welistone (D-MN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced an amendment to the Personal Responsi-bility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 which remained in the Act at state option. The Family Violence Option (EVO) was intended by its sponsors to allow states to provide domestic violence victims and survivors the services and time necessary to remove the barriers presented by that violence and to escape federal financial penalties for so doing.

These earlier reports encouraged researchers to examine the prevalence of domestic violence within welfare caseloads, We now have results from four recent in-depth studies, each involving fairly large samples. These published and unpublished studies allow us to answer more accurately the question about the extent of current and past domestic violence among women receiving welfare, and we can also begin to gauge the effects of this violence on low-income women's lives, on their use of welfare and on their ability to become economically self-sufficient.

The prevalence of violence across the studies is high and remarkably consistent. These studies validate the reports of training providers and grass-roots groups which have previously identified domestic violence as a major welfare-to-work barrier.

The Passaic County Study of AFD C Recipients in a Welfare-to-Work Program, a research effort conducted by the Passaic County Board of Social Services, reports on a sample of 846 women on AFDC in one northern New Jersey county participating in a mandatory pre-employment assessment and training program between December 1995 and January 1997.

14.6% of the sample reported current physical abuse by an intimate partner, with 57.3% of the entire sample reporting physical abuse some time during their adulthood, 12.9% of the entire sample, and 39.7% of those current physical abuse victims, reported that their partner actively prevents their participation in education and training.

In Harm's Way? Domestic Violence, AFDC Receipt and Welfare Reform in Massachusetts reports on a random sample of 734 women in the Massachusetts welfare caseload, surveyed between January and June 1996 by the University of Massachusetts-Boston. This study is the first scientific sampling of one state's entire AFDC caseload which measured both current and past prevalence of domestic violence.

19.5% of the sample reported current physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner, with 64% experiencing intimate partner violence ever in life as an adult.

Abused women in the sample were 10 times more likely than their never abused counterparts to have a current partner who would not like them going to school or work.

The Worcester Family Research Project is a five-year study of 436 women, most of whom were welfare recipients, both homeless and housed, in Worcester, Massachusetts, conducted by the Better Homes Fund between August 1992 and July 1995.

The study found that, of the entire sample of homeless and housed women, 61% had been severely physically assaulted by an intimate male partner as adults; nearly one-third had experienced severe violence from their current or most recent partner. Over one-third had been threatened with death by an intimate partner.

This research also documented current high prevalences of mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder within the entire sample at levels two to three times that in the general female population.

The Effects of Violence on Women 's Employment is a random survey of 824 women in one low-income neighborhood of Chicago, conducted by the Northwestern University Joint Center for Poverty Research between September 1994 and May 1995.

Although rates of violence were high for the entire neighborhood sample (11.8%), AFDC recipients experienced three times the amount of physical violence as their neighborhood counterparts within the last year (31.1%).

Richard Tolman of the University of Michigan Research Development Center on Poverty, Risk and Mental Health, who has recently assisted Taylor Institute in undertaking a comprehensive analysis of the new data (published in an April 1997 report), concludes, "Domestic violence victims are not the only welfare recipients facing barriers to work. Women who have lived in persistent poverty face a myriad of problems and barriers to labor market participation. For battered women, these problems appear, however, compounded by domestic violence."

Advocates have had some concerns about state implementation of the Wellstone/Murray Family Violence Option (IWO). If the IWO allows states, without federal penalty, to exempt battered women, what incentive will the state have to provide them with expensive services and assist them to escape the violence and enter the workforce? As the EVO mentions assessment as well as service referral, it is highly unlikely that the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will provide states with relief from financial penalties for failing to meet their monthly participation rate unless domestic violence victims are receiving these necessary services. Advocates have been urging DHHS to issue an interpretation that would make this clear and provide information about how the FVO provisions will interact with the federal penalties.

Some advocates are concerned about a practice which provides special treatment and services for domestic violence victims but does not help other welfare participants who also have serious barriers to labor market participation. Some members of the media have seized on this potential competition among welfare participants and their advocates. In truth, there is no competition. As Wendy Pollack of the Chicago-based Poverty Law Project recently pointed out, "States will be able to extend protections to domestic violence survivors and pay for them with federal dollars, leaving scarce state resources for other families in which multiple barriers will preclude them from maintaining employment, as well as for immigrants. It is in everyone's interest for a state to adopt the IWO."

Difficult issues of assessment, referral and the lack of capacity of the current domestic violence service delivery system remain for state and local advocates to wrestle with. However, the dialogue is extremely healthy because the issue of implementation of the FVO at the state level forces the state to focus on service delivery issues - which is the most important aspect of "welfare reform." All the program waivers in the world will not help battered women who need services and do not receive them. We can hope that the EVO, in addition to starting a nation-wide discussion of domestic violence and poverty, will be the catalyst for the creation of an adequate service delivery system for low-income girls and women who suffer from the dual barriers of violence and poverty. Who knows, perhaps when states see the efficacy of specialized domestic violence services as a welfare-to-work tool, they may go beyond that to consider other kinds of services for other participants.

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