With all of the Reagan-era rhetoric about “welfare queens” refusing to die out and often leading to increasingly restrictive policies being suggested or implemented for people seeking public assistance, we must not forget that there is a very vulnerable population that often seeks this aid- victims of horrific violence and their children, many of whom have also been abused or witnessed acts of violence. Imagine being a young woman walking into your local DSS building. After checking that you have no visible bruises, you get in line to ask for desperately needed help. As you near the front of the line, you fear that you’ll be too afraid to speak when it’s your turn, and quickly scribble down a note: “I have trouble talking about this, but someone I spoke to at the domestic violence agency said to come here and see if I can get some help so I won’t have to be financially dependent on someone who won’t stop raping me.” You hand the note to a woman at the desk who walks you through the necessary forms, and soon after, you’re called into an office, just to be told that you do not qualify for public assistance because you’ve been taking money from your abuser. After attempting to explain that you’re only there so you won’t have to do that and that you are in far too much danger to wait to try and qualify for disability, you’re simply told that, “It’s a catch-22,” and that you’d have to go an entire month with no income in order to qualify. After realizing that running from a rapist is expensive and that there are some things you might need money for like, say, food, shelter, and medicine, you realize that you’re trapped. Unfortunately, this is far from a hypothetical attempt to highlight systematic inadequacies- it’s the precise scenario I found myself in at one point in my life.
This so-called “catch-22” is a common problem for survivors who are financially dependent on wealthy abusers but have little to no outside income. Given that abusers often prohibit victims from working or maintain control of their paychecks and that those with physical illnesses and mental health challenges are particularly vulnerable to and, thus, disproportionately affected by abuse, this population is often left very helpless to escape without a source of outside income. It’s easy to think that domestic violence shelters fill this gap, but it simply is not the case. The demand for beds in shelters is far higher than the number of beds available, and many shelters will deny this protection to women with physical disabilities or emotional challenges, women who are trying to escape from an abuser who is not an intimate partner, or women who have teenage sons who would need to live in the shelter with them, not to mention, to men fleeing from violence.
It’s easy to make judgments when you see someone using a benefit card to make a purchase, to scowl and mutter that she needs to “get a job like the rest of us,” and question why she needs that assistance as she gets into an expensive-looking car. It may be worth remembering that that card could be the only thing allowing this woman to plan her escape from someone who is intent on causing her harm.
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