We won’t ever know the unpaid debt that most domestic abusers owe, but no one needs to remind a battered partner how much domestic violence costs her, whether it be her job, her family, her physical and mental health. But what about the social consequences? A new study uses the dismal science to calculate the cost to the victim in terms of her future economic security, and finds that while state intervention may prove invaluable, the personal damage may be irrevocable.
Advocates and researchers have previously calculated various financial estimates of the impact of intimate partner abuse, ranging from $3.9 billion to $7.7 billion annually in the US alone. The costs might include government spending on police and social services. Individually, according to some estimates, abuse has factored into the job loss reported by a quarter to half of domestic violence survivors, and could lead to millions of lost work days.
But statistics on lost income and welfare budgets don’t really capture the burden that follows a survivor through her lifetime. A recent paper by researchers Melanie Hughes and Lisa Brush at the University of Pittsburgh discusses in economic terms the challenges facing a victim seeking to escape abuse through state intervention. Often, the risk of hardships brought on by the escape undermine the benefits of temporary safety.
Examining a set of women from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2000 who sought court orders of protection (which essentially keep abusers away), the researchers considered whether “Protections offered by the state could decrease exposure to abuse, increase women’s leverage, or both, improving women’s earnings”—or the opposite, leading to more chaos and economic instability.
The researchers cost out various social factors surrounding a court petition process, like whether they accessed public benefits to mitigate the economic “shock.” They found that women faced major challenges related to “the disruptions of leaving their homes, moving and changing jobs, petitioning for protection through the courts, and applying for stigmatized income support through welfare.” These social setbacks compound the effects of abuse, even when she accesses public resources designed to help protect her.
The findings point to chronic struggles that beset abuse victims working toward long-term recovery. The researchers noted that after reaching out to the government for help, women risk sinking into deeper violence and instability, since “men’s abuse could escalate, further obstructing work and diminishing women’s earnings growth.” The impact of starting the petition process, moreover, can be complicated if she gives up before the court order is issued—leaving her without state protection and still exposed to the abuser. The researchers note that “persisting through the court process may be the only way to help women put a stop to abuse and thus mitigate negative effects of petitioning on earning.”
Yet even when a “law and order” intervention enables a woman to separate from the relationship, she still faces many other potential crises for years to come, including stigma or long-term unemployment. The number of long-term unemployed women has more than doubled since 2008, with acute impacts on black and Asian workers. At the same time, national surveys of domestic violence organizations, which provide crucial economic supports and transitional housing for thousands of survivors annually, have reported cutbacks in job training and employment assistance services.
Although the researchers found that trauma “might linger” across a lifetime, it seems the after-effects vary. In the period leading up to a petition, for example, some women seemed to experience a rise in earnings, possibly as they buffer themselves financially for separation from an abuser. But these effects may level off after petitioning for the protective order, perhaps in part due to “backlash” from abusers. Overall, even after seeking court-mandated protection, economic security remains far out of reach for many. Much of the blame may lie with society in addition to the abuser—with shrinking welfare programs for poor women, and a healthcare system known to treat domestic violence as a “preexisting condition”). It’s easy to view “cycle of abuse” in isolation—as the victim “regressing” back to a dysfunctional relationship, due to personal weakness—but often, institutional barriers push her to return.
On a material level, it’s just hard to hold a job after years of being beaten, or being left homeless with your kids in foster care. The researchers point out, workers experiencing abuse “may face both immediate and longer-term obstacles to their presence and productivity at work; they may need more than time off to go to court.” Employers that offer only low-wage part-time jobs, with no benefits and unforgiving leave policies, aggravate workers’ struggle to cope with an abusive household (try asking for a paid day off at your retail job on the morning your husband throws you down the stairs). And that job is often a survivor’s key means of attaining the financial stability she needs to keep her family steady and self-sufficient while recovering.
Still, there are points of intervention that the government could strengthen. The researchers found, for instance, “Welfare may help the lowest-earning women establish independence from abusers,” so to ensure long-term economic resilience, survivors may need “exemptions from time limits on welfare receipt.”
But longer spells on welfare won’t necessarily give a survivor real control over her life. In an austerity-driven fiscal climate with limited job protections for survivors and dwindling social services—agencies nationwide have faced steep cuts in shelter services, legal aid and childcare programs—the state simply does’t offer what’s needed for a survivor and her family to recover for good.
Hughes and Brush tell The Nation via e-mail that in evaluating the social ramifications of abuse,
the usual economic calculations don’t include the myriad ways even a woman who has managed to extricate herself from the abuser may spend the next decade or two underachieving, worried that if she ever accomplishes anything that might draw attention to herself, she will be shamed or vulnerable to retaliation. The losses to individual women, and to the cause of gender equality, are indeed incalculable.
When Congress battles over funding for services for abuse victims, and local governments cut staff at emergency shelters, lawmakers seem to have miscalculated about whose back they’re balancing their budgets on.