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"Domestic Violence and Welfare Reform,"

by Jody Raphael January/February 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

Because of relatively few labor market opportunities for unskilled women, national welfare reform efforts stand a higher chance of success if they assist AFDC women to acquire more training or persuade young people to stay in school. Yet the Clinton Administration's welfare reform plan appears to give long-term job training programs relatively short shrift; as a matter of fact, the assumptions made in the plan appear to contradict some of the current field findings by welfare-to-work service providers about the paths welfare par-ticipants are taking from welfare to work and the length of time for the trip.

This article seeks to briefly share with other service providers, community groups and academic researchers what we have learned about the needs of the welfare population in Chicago, in an attempt to begin a dialogue about the needs of welfare participants, in order to impact the national debate.

The Chicago Commons West Humboldt Employment Training Center (ETC) opened its doors in February 1991 as a demonstration model, to ascertain the level of skills and the range of problems presented by Jaw-income persons on public assistance, and the programmatic effort and length of time needed to bring them into the labor market. ETC provides case management services as well as literacy, ESL and GED classes, health care, child care, parenting and family literacy training, and self-help support groups, all at one site. Almost 500 participants have been helped since ETC's inception.

Statistics describing the characteristics of 91 women receiving AFOC who entered ETC between July 1, 1993 and June 30, 1994 demonstrate the real problems of welfare reform (previous years' statistics reveal the same patterns):

58% were current victims of domestic violence when they entered ETC.
An additional 26% were past domestic violence victims.
21% were currently addicted to drugs or abusing alcohol, and an additional 9% were recovering from past use. (This figure agrees with statistics in a recent report from Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, which states that women receiving AFDC are nearly twice as likely to abuse or be addicted to alcohol and illicit drugs as women not receiving AFDC-27% compared to 14%.)
15% were co-dependents, living with others in the home using drugs or alcohol.
17% were past victims of sexual assault or incest survivors.
30% were determined by case managers to be suffering from depression or mental illness.
33% of all households had at least one child suffering from a severe learning disability, behavior disorder, or mental illness or depression.
17% of all households had a child with a severe physical problem, mainly asthma, epilepsy or heart condition.
24% were considered obese by the project's nurse-practitioner.
43% were reading at 6th grade or below upon entry.

ETC has discovered a strong connection between domestic violence and long-term welfare receipt. Domestic violence explains much about the difficulty of making the journey from welfare to work.

Participants do not come to basic skills classes regularly, because their attendance provokes violent behavior against them. Their decision to improve their skills and seek employment threatens their abusers, who prefer them to stay dependent. Coming to the ETC program is itself an act of resistance which most often exacerbates the violence. Staff see women with visible bruises, black eyes and cigarette burns, inflicted by abusers in the hope that their victims will be too embarrassed to come to school.

ETC believes that domestic violence is one of the factors accounting for the large number of drop-outs in literacy and job training programs involving public assistance participants.

Some participants fall asleep in class because they have not been able to get any sleep at home due to the conflict. Often the conflict occurs the night before the GED test or a crucial entrance test for a job training program.

Because of the traumatization from domestic violence or incest, many participants need professional therapy or medication to recover from the depression that has set in.

After participants drop their dreams of getting off welfare because of real fear for their lives, suicide attempts are common. All too often, relatives who could take these participants into their homes have also been threatened with violence and are afraid to help. Unfortunately, many participants are also afraid to get needed help for their children; they fear that getting other systems involved in their lives might lead to losing their children due to their failure to provide a violence-free home environment. For this reason, the problem is unlikely to be shared with a welfare department case manager or other helping professional who has a duty under state law to report potential child abuse or neglect.

ETC has demonstrated that once participants extricate themselves from the violence and have some time to sufficiently recover from past trauma, great gains occur in literacy levels and employability. Training programs, however well-intentioned, that do not address this issue are doomed to failure. Welfare reform schemes, including those providing public service jobs, cannot succeed if welfare recipients remain in the grip of their abusers. The fact is that these participants cannot successfuly hold downjobs of any kind. AFDC women may get off welfare as a result of these plans, but they will become further trapped into remaining with their abuser, who does not want them to be economically independent.

The problem is that policy makers persist in formulating policy based on the construct of the single-parent household, with the father of the children out of the picture and failingto provide support. The reality for many
ETC welfare participants is far more complex. The live-in male is providing a great deal of financial support to the family unit, but not through the legal system and often not for his own children. Because the welfare participant cannot live on the welfare check alone due to low grant levels in Illinois, this financial support is absolutely crucial for survival.

Yet the Clinton Administration's welfare plan refuses to confront the reality that defines the lives of welfare participants. The two-year time limit, assumptions about employability and lack of specialized services for domestic violence victims are all key troubling issues with the plan. Most important, the relationship of domestic violence and sexual abuse and incest to teen pregnancy and welfare receipt mandates a strong domestic violence prevention effort aimed at young men and women. As an issue, domestic violence remains dangerously disconnected from welfare reform.


ETC hopes to hearfrom practitioners in the field and from academics about any supporting data they have which could be used to inform the national debate along these lines. Please contact the author, who is a Taylor Institute Administrative Partner, at 915 N. Wolcott Ave., Chicago, IL 60622, 312/42-5510.


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