PITTSFIELD — We often see the cost of economic inequality measured in terms of quantifiable things — months of rent, years of student loan payments, days of childcare.
The immeasurable costs of economic inequality are bigger and harder to quantify — loss of safety, health, connection, and opportunity, struggles to support the people we care about, absence of time or mental energy for things that bring us happiness, hope, or peace.
These harder-to-measure costs remind us that economic inequality is the product of generations of racial oppression and marginalization — of people of color, LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, to name a few.
This October (Domestic Violence Awareness Month), they remind us that domestic and sexual violence are bound up in the story of economic inequality too.
Intimate partner violence and sexual assault are primary causes of homelessness and poverty. A study of homeless women in Worcester found that 92 percent had experienced severe physical or sexual violence. Domestic violence survivors comprise most recipients of family welfare assistance. In 2006, two-thirds of Massachusetts families in homeless shelters were victims of domestic violence.
This is no coincidence. Poverty increases one's risk of violence because perpetrators target the marginalized and vulnerable. Rarely discussed are the ways that domestic and sexual violence cause poverty. Abusers sabotage survivors' work, education, community supports, credit, and sense of worth. Survivors who leave abusive relationships often suffer a precipitous drop in income due to interruptions in housing, employment, school, support networks and loss of the abuser's income. The costs of recovering from domestic or sexual violence are high: medical and mental health care needs, ruined credit, difficulty working, anxiety, depression, isolation, and lack of understanding from society at large.
In America, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, and 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted. Good data don't yet exist on levels of violence experienced by gender nonconforming and non-binary individuals, but we know that marginalized communities are more vulnerable to violence (because perpetrators exploit power differences) and less likely to receive informed and caring responses from service providers.
Effectively addressing economic inequality requires treating poverty and trauma as interconnected concerns, paying attention to people's safety, well-being, opportunity, and level of connection. What can we do?
1. Stop economic victim blaming.
Victims of domestic and sexual violence often contend with the pervasive belief that they are responsible for the crimes committed against them, just as the poor are stigmatized premised on the myth that one's economic circumstances reveal something about one's work ethic or character. Being low-income is not a good predictor of effort, skill, or character. It is a good predictor of having experienced trauma and abuse, of having one's world upended, sense of self shattered, home and community lost, job derailed, and/or credit ruined by domestic or sexual violence.
2. Name the ways that economic and social structures make it hard to get ahead.
Income and wealth inequality continue to grow. Real wages are falling while GDP and corporate profits after taxes soar. Most social safety nets continue to shrink. It costs money to not have enough money, in higher interest rates, fewer options, diminished access to resources, exploitative pricing, and crushing debt.
3. Advocate for income and housing supports, livable wages, pay equity, and public benefits that can at least support families' survival.
These widening gaps between the few who are doing well and the many who are scraping by have real consequences for safety. Most victims suffer abuse longer if they cannot feed and shelter themselves or their children. They have to make impossible choices between safety and basic needs.
If we care about survivors' safety, we must fight for more affordable housing, livable wages, pay equity, and public benefits that can at least support families' survival (welfare benefits in Massachusetts are 60 percent below the federal poverty level).
4. Create financial independence programs that incorporate these insights.
Elizabeth Freeman Center partnered with the American Institute for Economic Research to create Money School, an award-winning financial independence initiative designed specifically for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Our next series starts in early November. Contact Donna at DonnaL@elizabethfreemancenter.org or 413-499-2425 to sign up!
Help in many ways
Money School treats poverty as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing. We team up with amazing community partners to build participants' connections, understanding that "who you know" is often as important as "what you know." We help participants get credit repair loans, matched savings grants, jobs, school scholarships, and public benefits. We respond holistically, providing ongoing support, advocacy, and tangible resources.
Results have been remarkable, in quantifiable ways — of last year's 60 Money School graduates, 25 reduced their debt, 11 found jobs, 12 found housing, and 4 enrolled in school — and in less quantifiable ways:
As one graduate wrote, "When I came to the Elizabeth Freeman Center, I didn't know who I was anymore Through the Money School Program, I now have a full-time job, I am now enrolled at [college], and I now get up every day of my life knowing that I can make a difference."
During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I hope our discussions are informed by an understanding of the ways that violence results in poverty, and the ways that poverty makes it harder for people to stay safe. The stakes are high.
B. Bradburd is director of Operations & Communications at Elizabeth Freeman Center. This piece was originally posted on EqualPayMA.com, a website administered by the Massachusetts Treasurer and Receiver General's Office of Economic Empowerment.