Studies of the connections among poverty, public assistance, employment, and violence against women have increased dramatically in recent years, partly spurred by the changes in welfare passed in 1996 as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Despite the increased attention, this research is still in its early stages. It has involved different samples of women, and used varying ways of measuring violence and its impacts. This paper provides a succinct summary of the research, with a focus on the aspects that have implications for advocates and others who work with women who receive TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Familiesóthe program established under PRWORA).
Nearly all of the studies that have investigated the issue have found that over half of the women receiving welfare said they had experienced physical abuse (defined as a continuum from slapping or hitting through more physically injurious acts) by an intimate male partner at some point during their adult lives. When women receiving welfare have been asked about abuse from their male partners in the past year, rates have ranged from about 9% to over 23%. Women who receive TANF and have experienced abuse report physical health problems, depression, and PTSD at higher rates than those who have not experienced physical abuse; those with recent abuse experiences report these symptoms at higher rates than those whose abuse occurred in the more distant past. This pattern suggests that these effects often diminish over time.
In general, women who have experienced even recent domestic violence are interested in working and are as likely to be employed as those who have not. However, some women have partners who actively interfere with their efforts to work or attend school or training; such women have more difficulty sustaining their participation. Similarly, women whose partners threaten to kill them, or threaten their children, are more likely than others to have reduced work involvement.
The studies show that, while experience of abuse can make 'sustained employment' more difficult, the type, timing and persistence of violence may be important considerations, and there are many other factors that are influential as well. These include education, work experience, physical and mental health problems, lack of transportation, discrimination, and race and ethnicity. Women consistently cite transportation, child care, and lack of job skills as their major obstacles to work. However, domestic violence may have more impact on women's options, and on the quality of the employment they obtain.
The studies also show that most women who have been abused do not disclose their experience to TANF workers, despite the Family Violence Option (FVO). Further, women's interest in applying for an exemption (or 'good-cause waiver') from cooperation with child support has been found to be quite limited, even among women who have disclosed abuse. Instead, they want to receive child support, unless they perceive imminent risks to themselves or their children.
Implications for work with women who receive TANF are discussed in some detail. They include the importance of sensitive assessment of women's risks and needs, clear communication of the implications of all choices, and supportive resources, including specialized advocacy.