Hard Times for Women Living on the Edge: Economic Anxieties Send Domestic-Abuse Rates Soaring

Even in good times, life for poor working women can be an obstacle-filled struggle to get by. In bad times, it can be hell.

Now, throw domestic violence into the mix and the hardships grow exponentially -- as I discovered recently when I talked with "Tyrie" while she was at her job at a child care center in one of New York City's outer boroughs.

"This economy is hitting everybody really hard," the fortysomething woman, originally from Trinidad, tells me. But it's hitting her harder than many. Tyrie is a domestic-violence survivor whose personal suffering has been compounded by the global economic crisis. And she isn't alone.

"Clients are coming in more severely battered with more serious injuries," reports Catherine Shugrue dos Santos of Sanctuary for Families, New York state's largest nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to dealing with domestic-violence victims and their children. "This leads us to believe that the intensity of the violence may be escalating. It also means that people may be waiting until the violence has escalated before they leave."

"Difficult financial times do not cause domestic violence," says Brian Namey from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "But they can exacerbate it. When there are tough financial times, couples can be under greater pressure, have higher stress levels."

In fact, a 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice reported that women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused.

The Domestic Violence No One Notices

When "domestic violence" is mentioned, people usually think of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, but experts say that another form of domestic violence has been on the increase since the global financial meltdown hit. They call it "economic abuse."

It not only goes largely unnoticed by most Americans, according to Shugrue dos Santos, but is "not sufficiently explored in the press." Namey concurs, adding, "Financial abuse is something that may not be on the radar for most people, but it is a serious problem."

Sanctuary for Families points to "Jen," a battered client who came to them last fall, just as the financial crisis was beginning to sweep the country. According to its staff, she represents an ever more typical case.

Speaking of her partner, she describes her dilemma: 

"Sometimes I think it would be easier just to go back to him. I know that he could possibly kill me but ... when we lived with him, he always had the refrigerator full, and I never had to worry about what my baby was going to eat or what we were going to wear. It's just really hard to watch my baby live like this. Sometimes I don't think it's worth it."

Jen is one of an increasing number of women caught between violence in the home and the violence of being penniless, powerless and alone in the world.

One way in which economic abuse occurs, Shugrue dos Santos explains, is when "as part of the power and control dynamic, the batterer tries to exert control over the finances of the family. We talk to many women, and even if they're the primary breadwinners in the family, they end up turning that money over to the batterer who either doesn't give them money or gives them an allowance."

There can be little question that the economic crisis is exerting new pressures on victims of domestic violence, exacerbating a whole constellation of interrelated issues that threaten to make their lives more precarious.

Staff members at Sanctuary for Families are finding, for instance, that batterers are ever more likely to fail to pay child and spousal support once their wives or partners leave them. Job loss in a swooning economy and less-forgiving landlords are just two other obvious factors that lead many of their clients to consider returning to abusers for financial security.

In addition, women like Jen are often kept in the dark about family finances and may even have their financial well-being and credit ruined by partners who mismanage their money, or use it as a form of punishment or a method of control. But there's also a larger kind of economic violence that only adds to the hardship of abusive relationships (or the possibility of leaving them) -- as Tyrie recently discovered when she took action against her abusive husband and found herself with mouths to feed in a world in which all sorts of economic supports were crumbling around her.

'I'm Not No Prima Donna'

The story Tyrie tells is emblematic of the special problems facing domestic-violence survivors in tough financial times. With an already-abusive partner, she emigrated to New York City from Trinidad years ago. After he pulled a gun on her, he was arrested, sent to prison, and then deported. Tyrie stayed on in New York, working and raising her three children.

For the last seven years, she has been married to an American citizen, and was again a victim of domestic violence. "It was an abuse situation," she tells me in her lilting, island-inflected voice. Although she fled to a shelter for victims of domestic violence several times, she says, "I wasn't too comfy there." And so she always returned home.

Nor could she make much use of the group-counseling sessions the shelter offered on a weekday evening. After all, in addition to raising her children, Tyrie held down a child care job from 9 a.m.  to 1 p.m., and then worked as a security guard from 4 p.m. until midnight.

Her husband worked irregularly. "The alcohol controlled him more than he controlled the alcohol" is how she puts it. Last year, the violence at home reached intolerable levels.

After he raped her, Tyrie finally took action and he, too, was sent to prison. While that made domestic abuse a thing of the past, the economic abuse by systemic forces outside the home had barely begun. Tyrie's situation actually worsened as the economy nosedived.

Last spring, with her work permit about to expire, she filed forms to renew it. Then the waiting started. Without a rapid renewal, she lost her security-guard job and eventually retained a personal lawyer to look into the delay. The lawyer, she says, misfiled her paperwork, and without her American husband at her side, Tyrie was left vulnerable. "Then I got this letter saying I'm facing deportation."

With deportation hearings looming and left only with her part-time child care job for minimal support, the financial pressure began to mount.

"It became really hard, paying $1,350 rent, taking care of three kids, [subway] rides, food and everything else," she says. "I spend only $25 every week in the grocery. That's all I can afford. Twenty-five dollars! You tell me what I can ... pick up for $25 and make that work for the week."

Friends offer assistance, but they, too, are facing financial hardship. One, whose job in home construction dried up two years ago, travels from food pantry to food pantry picking up groceries, including a bag for Tyrie's family.

Tyrie then takes the chicken, potatoes and onions he brings back and combines it with the peas and rice she buys on sale to cook up dishes that provide the family three meals a day. "I make it go a long way," she says, with more than a hint of weariness in her voice.

It has to go even further these days. In October, her sister-in-law lost her job on Wall Street. Given the dismal employment situation in New York City, she hasn't been able to find work since. So Tyrie took her and her two children in. Together, the seven of them live in a small apartment, barely making ends meet.

Still, at a friend's urging Tyrie made time to canvass for presidential candidate Barack Obama in Pennsylvania during the waning days of the campaign in order to "make a difference." And at night, for the last year, she has been enrolled in a home-study program in the hopes of one day becoming a social worker.

"Nothing is gonna hold me back," she insists in a way that leaves a listener feeling she's trying to convince herself. As we talk, she vacillates between hope and despair, wondering aloud how she will push on, but resigned to the fact that she has little choice other than to find a way.

In January, Tyrie had to go to her landlord and level with him about her finances. For the moment, he's working with her. "At least I try to give him a thousand dollars every month. But the $300 is backing up," she says of the unpaid remainder of her rent.

Now, a budget cut threatens pre-kindergarten programs funded by New York's Administration for Children's Services, imperiling her remaining part-time job. So on days off, she has gone to Albany to lobby politicians, but it hasn't left her hopeful. "Come September, I might not have a job," she tells me.

More immediately, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing its own fiscal crisis and was then threatening to increase subway fares in the city by 25 percent, to $2.50 a ride. That, too, was on her mind. After all, taking mass transit at whatever price is an everyday necessity for Tyrie and her children, and that price leap seemed unaffordable to her.

"I'm already struggling to make ends meet. When it goes up to $2.50, how on God's green earth am I gonna make it? I don't know yet. But I'm really trying my best not to give up, not to throw in the towel and do the best I can for me and these three children." (In fact, the fare rise was only to $2.25, still ruinous for Tyrie.)

At night, when she tries to rest, her mind races. "I am not sleeping. I can't tell you the last night I really slept," she says.

"I don't know if they'll authorize me to get back my work permit. I really want to know because I need a second job. I can't live like this no more, ya know? The security people want me back, but if I don't have that card to give them, they don't want to take me back."

In fact, she's willing to do just about any work short of prostitution. "I'll wash dishes. I'll go clean any office. I will clean any bathroom. Anything, just to make the extra couple dollars. I'm not no prima donna."

'I Can't Crumble and Fall'

Tyrie's situation highlights the terrible bind that affects so many victims of domestic violence. Her husband was a danger to her, and yet, even with only irregular work, a second source of income in the family provided a small protection against the abyss.

Now he's gone, as is the abuse -- and the income. Gone as well is Tyrie's immigration security and with it her other job -- and now there are three more mouths in the house to feed.

Tyrie understandably chose to trade increased economic insecurity for personal safety, and as a result, her life threatens to crumble at any moment. For many domestic-violence survivors, however, the prospect of economic ruin is more terrifying than physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

"Studies have shown," Shugrue dos Santos tells me, "that it's difficult for domestic-violence survivors to leave for all sorts of reasons. Dependence on the batterer, emotionally and economically. And certainly we know that in a bad economy there are more obstacles for leaving. We know that there are fewer options for housing. The essential thing is: 'How am I going to feed my kids if I leave?' " If you're used to living on two incomes, she notes, the prospect of trying to survive on one can be daunting.

Tyrie made that hard choice and the consequences haven't been easy, but she credits her upbringing in Trinidad as instrumental in helping her to survive. She muses: "My momma had 10 kids back in the days, with my dad alone working. She showed us how to make ends meet, and I'm thankful for that, because now I'm in the situation. I have to make ends meet." It's in that spirit that she insists, "I can't crumble and fall. Nope. I have to face reality. There's people worse off than us, that's how I look at it."

Tyrie's story is increasingly typical of domestic-violence survivors now facing another terrifying form of abuse. Over the course of her life in the United States, she has suffered from many forms of mistreatment at the hands of her domestic partners. Now, free of that violence, she finds herself subjected to another form of mistreatment that may be even more difficult to escape: abuse at the hands of a government bureaucracy and a crumbling economic system.

Those combined forces are now punishing a woman who has always tried to play by their rules: following immigration statutes, working multiple jobs and raising her children.

Even today, she's still trying. "It's hitting me harder because of my status," she says of the economic crisis in regard to her immigration situation. But she still believes she can claw her way out of hardship with hard work.

"If I had my second job, I would have been OK."

[Note: The names of both women in this piece have been changed for obvious reasons.]

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