The gender pay gap doesn’t just reflect men’s dominance in the workplace, it parallels a hidden oppression in the home. As the Trump administration moves to slash social-welfare programs and roll back workplace anti-discrimination protections, the economic war on women is manifested not only through the pain of deprivation but, often, through the violence of abusers.
The social “cost” of intimate-partner violence is impossible to measure in monetary terms, but, statistically, the trauma cuts deep into gender gaps across society. As the social safety net for domestic violence survivors deteriorates, the burden of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse is being compounded by economic uncertainty. For working women facing acute job insecurity and dwindling social supports, domestic abuse may intensify gender inequality—manifesting in eroding wages, rising medical bills, and the tightening financial grip of their partners.
While intimate partner violence (IPV) incidents are already vastly underreported to law enforcement or community members (an estimated quarter of physical assaults and a fifth of sexual assaults are never formally reported), that small fraction of survivors who actually try to get treatment face health-care and social-service costs that are prohibitively costly for many.
According to an analysis by Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), roughly four in 10 survivors of IPV (which includes physical and sexual abuse as well as stalking) experience physical injury as a result of their abuse. Of those, fewer than 30 percent seek some kind of medical treatment, and about the same proportion seek mental-health care. Even still, though exact monetary values cannot be assessed, medical treatment for victims of a rape by an intimate partner was over $3,300 on average “per incident,” adjusted for inflation, and more than $1,500 in mental-health treatment, according to IWPR’s overview of IPV research since the 1990s. Surveys of stalking victims showed they faced an estimated $1,100 in mental-health care costs, and about one eighth had to pay an additional $1,000 or more in personal funds following the abuse, as they dealt with childcare arrangements, lawyers, moving expenses, and other basic recovery needs.
Despite the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act and other federal programs and legal protections against IPV since the mid-1990s, the reverberations of abuse continue to take an outsized toll on survivors, especially during times of austerity budgets and economic instability. Women IPV survivors have reported paying 20 percent higher medical costs compared with their peers’. The final cost is partially absorbed by medical institutions and health insurance, but the rest ends up heaped on those who least deserve it. Survivors, according to surveys, paid about a third of both abuse-related medical and mental-health care costs.
Multiply those micro-impacts by the 25 percent of all women and nearly 8 percent of men who report experiencing sexual or physical abuse at the hands of a partner over their lifetime. Then there’s the additional impacts on children and the aggravating factors of emotional anxiety and stigma as survivors struggle to conceal the abuse from coworkers and loved ones.
The subtle reverberations of domestic violence in the workplace are even more jarring in light of the increasingly blurred lines between work life and “family” life. A 2005 survey of survivors by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence found that two-thirds had suffered direct impacts on their work performance. Another study on IPV by Maine labor authorities revealed that common forms of economic sabotage ranged from harassing phone calls at work to disrupting their sleep at night, hiding the car keys, or refusing to share in childcare duties to disrupt a survivor’s schedule.
Stalking victims were kept out of work for an extra 10 days per year, while victims of sexual and physical assault lost about a week of work annually. That’s why gender-equality advocates point to paid-medical-leave policies as a vital issue for domestic-violence survivors. Millions of women across the country, particularly immigrant and black and Latina low-wage women workers, currently have no access to paid sick days and related benefits.
According to Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski, director of IWPR’s Economic Security for Survivors Project, the cumulative social costs of IPV “are not often recognized as serious threats to economic security and opportunity, but they absolutely do contribute to women’s economic inequality.”
Tracing the contours of the gender pay gap—which leaves women earning roughly 83 cents for every dollar that goes into a man’s pocket—is the intersection of domestic violence and other barriers of discrimination: It ties into the racial and social barriers that women workers face as a whole, including outright discrimination as well as more subtle impacts, such as unequal pay and occupational segregation. The prevalence of sexual harassment and misogynistic attitudes in workplace relations also contribute to a general sense that the workplace is another unsafe space where abuse must remain a hidden “private” affair, or might even trigger hostility. What happens when arriving late or breaking down at the office get written up by a supervisor as an undisciplined attitude? Or the worker who misses so many workdays due to her husband’s abuse that she gets passed over for the promotion she needs to pay for a divorce lawyer? Or when an on-call retail-sales job means any unexcused absence leads to automatic firing? About six in 10 of the survivors surveyed had been driven to quit or been fired due to the abuse.
Job insecurity is compounded by long-term financial risk. In a 2012 survey of social-service providers in New York, about half of organizations said at least one in four of their IPV cases involved some form of financial coercion. Partners would reportedly “steal, withhold access to personal documents, or require them to hand over or ask permission to spend their own income.” Many clients had been outright barred by their abusers from working or opening a bank account—so even if they eventually broke away from their partners they would spend years dealing with the burdens of financial abuse: chronic debt, ruined credit, lost savings.
The risks of attempting to escape can be almost as painful as the abuse itself, as survivors often experience housing instability or homelessness. A 2004 study in Georgia found that about 40 percent of IPV survivors had experienced homelessness, and one in four were driven from home by harassment or financial distress.
Whether they stay with their abuser or leave, untold long-term costs of family abuse are paid through the loss of childhood: Kids’ exposure to domestic violence leads to deep psychological and developmental problems. Inter-generational research shows that women victims of child abuse face higher risks of victimization in adulthood, and abused boys are more than twice as likely to grow up to become abusers themselves. So while IPV entrenches social deprivation for victims, it multiplies patterns of abuse for the next generation.
A 2004 longitudinal study estimated the cumulative social toll of IPV to the country at roughly the equivalent of $9.3 billion annually in 2017 dollars. Meanwhile, public-health research shows that a trend of decline in the gender wage gap since 1990 has paralleled a major decrease in IPV prevalence. Yet, for individuals, costs related to long-term social and economic recovery from abuse are immeasurable. A 2000 study of teenage abuse victims revealed that their suffering affected their entire life’s prospects: They earned roughly one dollar per hour less than their peers, largely due to violence-related disruptions in schooling and work. Past studies of IPVs long-term impacts have linked victimization early in life to decreased educational attainment over time. According to IWPR’s analysis, over a lifetime, IPV amounts to the equivalent of about $52,000 in lost wages.
The systemic trauma of abuse shades into other social divides as well; as the prevalence of IPV is so much higher among poorer women and women of color, the collective impact aggravates the racial and social barriers a woman faces in attaining basic resources for leaving abusers and recovering—which are often grounded in the work opportunities abusers deny them.
Today Trump’s budget threatens to deepen domestic abuse’s aftershocks. Trump’s proposed cuts to the Justice Department budget would undermine funding for core federal IPV programs that are already deeply underfunded. Potential gutting of legal-aid-service funding might effectively quash many survivors’ hopes of being made whole through the legal system. They could be cut off from legal representation and, Bocinski says, “Without this resource, many may be unable to access safety and justice.”
But health-care cutbacks might do more severe damage. Among the major advancements of the Affordable Care Act reforms that are now on Trump’s chopping block, were programs for IPV-related services—including mandatory screenings for IPV, free mental-health counseling and substance-abuse treatment for survivors to help them cope with the psychological aftermath. Whether Trump cuts back health-care programs or scraps Obamacare altogether, survivors today are now at risk of losing already limited resources for long-term healing.
Bocinski underscores that “any changes to the ACA that disproportionately affects women will harm survivors,” simply because they are far more vulnerable to IPV, and rely on public supports to help them reestablish their lives post-abuse.
The gender wage gap has been often attributed to women’s lifestyle “choices”—choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, fulfilling the “natural” family role by opting for less work and more family time. But when home life means you can’t work full-time because you never know when your partner will put you in intensive care, what appears to be your chosen work-life balance is just masking the burden of unspeakable trauma. This morning’s “unexcused” lateness is just how the economy calculates the cost of silence forced by an abuser’s threats. And the pinch in a workers’ weekly paycheck marks just a fraction of the price she pays on the job, for the deeper crisis that awaits her back at home.