Battered women hit hard by welfare reform

President Clinton promised to change welfare “as we know it,” and indeed he did, against the advice of some of his closest advisors. He signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in August 1996, setting the stage for further erosion of the already deteriorating safety net for the country’s poorest families. Some of those hit hardest by these changes are battered women.
Welfare Reform, as the new law is commonly known, replaces some older programs with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Time limits in the new program restrict a recipient to a total of 60 months of TANF support.
The new law permits each state to exempt up to 20 percent of their recipients from these time requirements based on specific hardships such as “the family includes an individual who has been battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.” Studies by Richard Tolman in Michigan and Jody Raphael in Illinois have shown that far more than 20 percent of the women receiving TANF have been exposed to domestic violence — and battering is just one of several hardships included in this 20 percent limit.
Wellstone-Murray Amendment
Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone was one of the few senators to vote against the new law. He worked hard to make changes in the legislation as it appeared headed for passage. One success was the overwhelming passage of the Wellstone-Murray Amendment (named for the senators who sponsored it). Under Wellstone-Murray, each state can choose to include a process whereby they waive certain requirements for some victims of domestic violence.
Reform’s impact on battered women
While the act could be interpreted in some states in a way that would provide more flexibility for some TANF recipients, there are a number of serious concerns among advocates for battered women. These concerns focus primarily on the following issues:
Many battered women report that their ability to get and keep a job is severely hampered by their abuser’s harassment both in and outside of work. Women are often dependent on their partners to get to jobs and job interviews and to show up consistently, ready for work. Large numbers of battered women also report being stalked or otherwise harassed at their workplaces.
The post-traumatic effects of having been a victim of severe abuse may result in a host of difficulties that many women experience. These effects will often hamper a woman’s ability to become economically self-sufficient within the time lines set forth in the new law.
Many battered women move to new neighborhoods, cities or even states to find greater safety for themselves and their children. The new law allows each state to set very different rules concerning eligibility for TANF support and whether the Wellstone-Murray provisions are used as intended. For example, some states give fewer benefits to new residents, thus punishing battered women and their children who are seeking greater safety in a new home.
Many states have narrowed or eliminated benefits for new immigrants, even when they are legally residing in the state. Many battered women are already economically dependent on their abusers, and these provisions tie immigrant battered women even more tightly to their abusers as one of the few escape hatches is removed.
A provision of the new law requires states to meet specific targets of identifying the fathers of children of welfare recipients and enforcing child support requirements. This part of the new law puts women in the position of choosing between food for their children and exposing themselves to the possibility of further abuse. When this man has been abusive to her, it is not hard to see how such paternity identification could be very dangerous for both the mother and her children.
While the Wellstone-Murray Amendment was intended to provide battered women with relief, one of the unintended outcomes is that welfare recipients are now being screened for domestic abuse, and this information is being recorded in large public welfare databases. There is great concern over the confidentiality of this information, how this information may be used and the ability of an abuser to find out what his victim has reported.
The new time limits on welfare are now ticking away. For many battered women the time left is insufficient to escape from a persistent abuser or the results of chronic abuse. When President Clinton signed the new law, he acknowledged that there were many problems with it and that changes would be required. Changes in the law’s responsiveness to battered women are certainly needed.
A position paper on welfare policy implications can be obtained from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence at 800-537-2238. For more information, visit /~socwk/trapped.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Edleson is a professor in the School of Social Work and director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse.