Your Money and Your Life: Trauma-Informed Responses to Economic Inequality

October 5, 2017

B. Bradburd is Director of Operations & Communications at Elizabeth Freeman Center in Berkshire County

We often see the cost of race and gender wage gaps measured in terms of quantifiable things – months of rent, years of student loan payments, days of childcare, levels of retirement savings. 

The measurable costs of economic inequality represent costs that are bigger and harder to quantify – loss of safety, loss of health, loss of connection, loss of opportunity, struggles to support the people we care about, absence of time or mental energy for the things that bring us happiness or hope or peace.

These harder-to-measure costs remind us that economic inequality in our country is the product of generations of racial oppression and marginalization - of people of color, LGBTQ communities, people living with disabilities, to name a few.

And this October, during 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 low-income and homeless women in Worcester, MA found that 92% experienced severe physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Domestic violence survivors make up the majority of those receiving family welfare assistance. The 2006 MA Department of Transitional Assistance study of households in family shelters found that two thirds of all respondents had been victims of domestic violence sometime in their lives, one third within the last year. 

This is not a coincidence.  Others have rightly pointed to the ways poverty increases one’s risk of violence (see Amarely’s editorial on Domestic Violence & the Wage Gap in this blog) because perpetrators tend to target those of us who are marginalized or vulnerable.  Less often discussed are the ways that domestic and sexual violence cause poverty.  Abusers often sabotage a survivor’s work, education, community supports, credit, and sense of worth.  Survivors who choose to leave abusive relationships often suffer an immediate and precipitous drop in income due to interruptions in housing, employment, school, support networks and loss of childcare and/or the abuser’s income.  Survivors are often left with debt and bad credit resulting from financial abuse in the relationship. And the costs – financial and emotional – of recovering from domestic or sexual violence are high: medical and mental health care needs, difficulty working, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, isolation, the weight of generational trauma, victim blaming or lack of understanding from society at large.

And this is not happening to “other people.”  Violence is epidemic and it happens here.  In the US, 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. And while violence can happen to anyone, marginalized communities are more vulnerable to violence (again, 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.  It requires paying attention to people’s safety, wellbeing, opportunity, and level of connection.

What can we do?

1. Stop economic victim blaming.  Victims of domestic and sexual violence (and those who care about them) often must contend with the pervasive and false belief that who they are, where they go, or how they look can somehow make them responsible for the crimes committed against them.  A similar instinct seems to lie at the heart of our society’s response to people who are low-income, premised on the false belief 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, character, or aptitude.  It is a good predictor of having experienced trauma and abuse, of having one’s world upended, one’s sense of self shattered, one’s home and community lost, one’s job derailed, and/or one’s 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 wage values are falling while GDP and corporate profits after taxes soar. Most social safety nets continue to shrink.  And in our society, it costs you 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, and pay equity.  These widening gaps - between the few who are doing well and the many who are just getting by - have real consequences for safety.  Victims will suffer abuse longer or return to the abuser if they cannot feed and shelter themselves or their children.  In one national study, 74% of victims reported staying with an abuser longer for financial reasons.  People are daily having to make impossible choices between safety and basic needs. 

If we care about survivors’ safety, we need to fight for more affordable housing, livable wages, pay equity, and public benefits that can at least support families’ survival (current welfare benefits in MA are 60% below the federal poverty level).

4. Create financial independence programs that incorporate these insights.  At Elizabeth Freeman Center, we 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.

In Money School, we treat poverty as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing, acknowledging the ways the system is stacked against those at the bottom.  We don’t ask participants to budget their way out poverty.  We don’t believe participants are struggling because they lack knowledge (we recognize how much resourcefulness, skill, and grit it takes to get by on insufficient benefits or non-livable wages); we believe they are struggling because they lack resources. So we leverage our assets and connections as an agency on participants’ behalf. We team up with some amazing community partners to build participants’ networks and connections, understanding that ‘who you know’ is often as important as ‘what you know’ to getting ahead. We help participants get credit repair loans, matched savings grants, school scholarships, increased public benefits, and better housing.  We respond holistically, offering concurrent counseling for recovery from domestic and sexual violence.  And we know these things take time, providing ongoing wrap-around individualized 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, 4 enrolled in school, 7 raised their credit score, and 17 received matched savings grants (or other resources to move them forward)

and in the less quantifiable ways:

  • as one graduate wrote, “When I came to the Elizabeth Freeman Center, I was a woman who didn’t know who I was anymore.  I didn’t know what to live for, how to trust, I didn’t have a purpose.  Through the Money School Program, I now have a full-time job, I am now enrolled at [community college], and I now get up every day of my life knowing that I can make a difference.”

This October, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I hope our discussions about income inequality and pay equity are informed by an understanding of the ways that violence results in poverty, and the ways that poverty make it harder for people to stay safe.  The stakes are high.