Analysis Sexual Health

New Survey Sheds Light on Americans’ Attitudes about Teen Pregnancy and Sex

Martha Kempner

This week, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released With One Voice 2012, America’s Adults and Teens Sound Off About Teen Pregnancy. This survey tells us quite a bit about the roles parents play in the sexual decision-making of young people, how young people and adults feel about sexuality education, what they think about contraception, and the power of the media.

As someone who writes about teen sexual behavior quite often, I do worry that we spend too much time worrying about (to steal a line from a friend) who puts what where and how often. While it is certainly important to know what teens are doing, it is equally important to know what they are thinking. This week, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released With One Voice 2012, America’s Adults and Teens Sound Off About Teen Pregnancy. The report reveals the results of a nationally- representative survey of teens (ages 12 to 19) and adults and is the latest in a series of surveys the organization has released since 2001 that ask about sex, contraception, and teen pregnancy. The goals of these surveys are to “regularly assess and report on opinions” and to supplement the behavior data on teen sexuality that is collected by surveys such as the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS) and the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).

This survey tells us quite a bit about the roles parents play in the sexual decision-making of young people, how young people and adults feel about sexuality education, what they think about contraception, and the power of the media. 

The Role of Parents  

Adults seem to worry a lot about the negative messages that young people receive from the media and their friends but it turns out that they need not be so concerned. The survey found that when it comes to sexuality, parents are more influential than anyone else including peers, media, religious leaders, and teachers. Moreover, the survey found that teens think it would be easier to avoid pregnancy with their parents’ help and support. Unfortunately, while they think their parents have good intentions, many teens believe them to be unprepared to talk about these issues.  Specifically, teens were asked:

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When it comes to your/teens’ decisions about sex, who is most influential?

  • 43 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 said parents, 19 percent said friends, 8 percent said the media, 6 percent said religious leaders, 5 percent said siblings, 5 percent said teachers and educators, and 8 percent said someone else.
  • 36 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 said parents, 24 percent said friends, 9 percent said the media, 6 percent said siblings, 4 percent said teachers and educators, and 12 percent said someone else.

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement:  “It would be much easier for teens to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversation about these topics with their parents.”

  • 87 percent of teens (ages 12 to 19) agreed with this statement with 53 percent saying they strongly agreed and 34 percent saying they somewhat agreed.

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “Parents believe they should talk to their kids about sex but often don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when it to start.”

  • 90 percent of teens agreed with this statement with 51 percent saying they strongly agreed and 34 percent saying they somewhat agreed. 

Teens’ overall desire to talk to their parents did not surprise the author of the survey who explains that it is in line with “a large body of social science research suggesting that overall closeness between parents and their children, shared activities, parental presence in the home, and parental caring and concern are all associated with a reduced risk of early sex and teen pregnancy.”

Monica Rodriguez, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), is also not surprised by these findings: “This confirms what we’ve known, that teens look to their parents and want to hear from them on these issues and that parents need to be prepared to answers their kids’ questions.”   

The survey suggests that parents really do want to help their teens navigate the tricky waters of sexuality and sexual behavior. For example, 90 percent of adults agreed that talking to parents would help teens delay sexual activity and prevent teen pregnancy. And, contrary to the images we have of parents running out to buy chastity belts at the first sign their teen is sexually active–79 percent of parent of teens said that if their teen were having sex they “would hope they could come talk to [me] so [I] could help ensure they were using birth control” as opposed to just 9 percent who said they would “be angry and try to convince them to stop having sex.” 

Unfortunately, the good intentions and willingness may be lost because of a lack knowledge and comfort with the topic; like teens, 88 percent of adults agreed that parents “often don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to start.” The author notes that “parents continue to say that they really do need help when it comes to talking to their kids about sex and related topics.”   

Rodriguez says that parents should not be discouraged because there are a lot of resources out there – including books and websites – dedicated to helping them take on this task.  She adds that parents should “look at resources designed directly for kids as well so that they can get a good idea of what is age appropriate.”

The Role of Education

If people only listened to politicians and pundits on the issue of sexuality education it would be easy to believe that there are only two types of programs–one that tells young people to put an aspirin between their knees until they’re married and one that hands them condoms and how-to-manuals and sends them on their way—and that these are totally incompatible. When other people are asked about this topic (both teens and adults), though, it turns out that they take the pretty rational view that abstinence and contraception can and should peacefully coexist. Specifically, when asked:

“Do you wish you/teens were getting more information about abstinence, more information about birth control or protection, or more information about both?”

  • 49 percent of teens and 74 percent of adults said both, 7 percent of teens and 13 percent of adults said abstinence, and 13 percent of teens and 9 percent of adults said birth control or protection.

“Do you think the primary message of these [federally funded programs] should be to help teens postpone sex, provide teens with information about birth control or protection, or provide teens with information about postponing sex andbirth control or protection?”

  • 65 percent of teens and 62 percent of adults said both, 19 percent of teens and 25 percent of adults said primarily providing information about postponing sex, and 11 percent of teens and 13 percent of adults said primarily providing information on birth control or protection.

According to the author, these findings show that in the real world people do not see sex education as an either-or proposition. He goes on to point out that:

“…the extraordinary progress that the nation has made in reducing teen pregnancy and childbearing in the past two decades has been driven by a combination of less sex and more contraception.” 

Educating young people about both, therefore, is a “common sense approach.” 

One of the other questions about sexuality education also shows common sense but may not be as simple as the survey seems to suggest. When asked if they agree or disagree with this statement, “Federally funded programs should primarily support those programs that have been proven to change behavior related to teen pregnancy,” a clear majority of adults (72 percent) agreed.

I, too, agree at least in theory but I fear this is oversimplified and that without first providing a little more context, the answer is not particularly meaningful. Obviously, we would all like to put our money toward programs that have already been proven to work whether they focus on sex ed or other topics. This is what the Obama administration is doing through its Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative which provides funding to organizations across the country to conduct prevention programming. Tier 1 of this program requires grantees to choose an evidence-based program (from a relatively small list of those that have been rigorously evaluated) and replicate programs “with fidelity.” Many educators agree, however, that this is too limiting because we don’t have enough programs that have been proven effective and the ones that have tend to be narrowly focused both in the topics they cover and the audiences they are intended to reach.  Rodriguez says this is why Tier 2 of this program is so important, though it is a much smaller pot of money this funding is going toward innovative approaches and that will hopefully add to our knowledge base about what can be effective. 

To Rodriguez, though, the most alarming finding of the survey when it comes to education, is just how low teachers and educators fell on the scale of influence; they were lower than friends, siblings, religious leaders, and the media with just 5 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 and 4 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 noting them as the most influential people when it comes to sex. Rodriguez believes that: “Educators and school administrators need to do some soul searching about why this is. Is it because we’ve censored ourselves–as a result of restrictive policies or fear of controversy–to the point that young people just don’t see us as a good source of information?”   

The Role of Contraception

The survey’s findings when it comes to contraception are a bit of a study in contradiction. Teens, it seems, think they know everything they need to know in order to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy yet admit they don’t all that much about either the male condom or the birth control pill. Moreover, an alarming number of them believe that contraception is somehow irrelevant to whether they get pregnant.  Specifically:

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “I have all of the information I need to avoid an unplanned pregnancy”

  • 75 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 agreed as did 86 percent of teens ages 15 to 19.

When asked, how much they thought they know about male condoms and how to use them

  • 6 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 thought they know everything, 27 percent know a lot, 50 percent know a little, and 16 percent know nothing.
  • 14 percent of teens ages15 to 19 thought they know everything, 50 percent know a lot, 32 percent know a little, and 4 percent know nothing.

When asked how much they thought they know about birth control pills and how to use them

  • 2 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 thought they know everything, 12 percent know a lot, 47 percent know a little, and 38 percent know nothing.
  • 6 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 thought they know everything, 30 percent know a lot, 48 percent know a little, and 16 percent know nothing.

When asked how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “It doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not, when it is your time to get pregnant it will happen”

  • 42 percent of teens agreed and 57 percent of teens disagreed.

As I said, these results seem somewhat contradictory. Teens are committed to preventing pregnancy and think they know how but in order to truly know how they would need all of the information about both male condoms and the pill and few teens even pretend they know it all.  (And I’d venture to bet some of the select few who think they do are wrong.)  Obviously, this suggests that we need to provide more information to teens about the ways in which they can protect themselves but I fear that this may not be enough if more than 40 percent of teens think contraception is irrelevant if it’s their “time to get pregnant.”

I think this speaks to a general negative attitude that we have toward contraception in this country; whether it’s abstinence-only-until-marriage programs telling students that using a condom is akin to playing Russian Roulette or Rush Limbaugh telling a law student that asking for contraceptive coverage was proof she was a slut. Providing young people with information about contraception–particularly male condoms which also protect against STIs–is a vital first step but we have to change the tone of the conversation about this topic completely if we’re going to make more progress. 

The good news is that adults seem to understand this and agree that our political dialogue, at least, is missing the mark on this issue. Specifically, 75 percent of adults agreed with the statement, “Policymakers who are opposed to abortion should be strong supporters of birth control.” The author explains this sentiment eloquently, saying:

“Over the past year, much of the public discourse about contraception has been considerably less than enlightening. In particular, the number of public figures and policymakers cynically conflating abortion and birth control has been especially disheartening and puzzling. That men and women of good will disagree about abortion is understandable; the hostility to preventing the unplanned pregnancies that frequently lead to abortion is not.”  

The Role of the Media

The survey also asked parents and adults about the role of the media and though, as I mentioned earlier, few young people referred to this as the strongest influence on their opinions about sexuality, participants readily agreed that the media does play a role. For example 75 percent of teen boys and 84 percent of teen girls agreed with the statement, “When a TV or character I like deals with teen pregnancy it makes me think more about my own risk of causing pregnancy and how to avoid it.” 

Teens and adults were asked specifically about the MTV shows 16 & Pregnant and Teen Moms which have been the source of contention with some viewers thinking they glamorize teen pregnancy and make celebrities out of teen moms and others believing that they show a realistic portrayal of the difficulties of parenting young. Most of the teens who had seen the show fell into this latter category with 77 percent believing it “helps teens understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenting.” Parents of teens though were less convinced with only 53 percent taking that point of view and 48 percent believing it “makes pregnancy and parenting look easy and fun.” 

We sexuality educators talk a lot about “teachable moments” when it comes to media message and often suggest that parents use what they see on TV to start conversations.  Both adults (75 percent) and teens (73 percent) agreed that the television shows or movies can be good launching points for conversations between parents and teens though only 47 percent of teens says this actually happens sometimes or often in their family.  Interestingly, 74 percent of parents of teens said they did use TV to spark conversation sometimes or often. The difference in responses between teens and parents does make one wonder what parents were really saying and what their teens were really hearing.

The authors concluded: “In short, media can, and often is, a force for good on teen pregnancy and related issue.”  I will just add that it is up to those of us in education and public health to reach out to media makers to help them use this power for good and not just salaciousness or profit. 

Keep Asking

The survey is quite extensive and asks many more questions of teens than I can cover here but I do want to touch on the one that I find most disturbing. Teens who have had sexual intercourse were asked if they wish they had waited longer; a majority (78 percent of sexually experienced teens 12 to 14 and 55 percent of sexually experienced teens 15 to 19) said that they did. According to the author, this is consistent with finding from the previous surveys, “In fact, over the years, one of the most consistent findings reported in the With One Voice series has been the regret many teens feel about the timing of early sexual activity.” 

More than any other finding, this suggests to me that we are doing something wrong – though it is not immediately clear where we are missing the mark.  Is it that teens are continually being pressured into having sex before they really want to? If so, what are the key sources of these pressures, how can we help teens handle them, and how do we change those message in the long term? Or, is it that through our very mixed messages about sex, teens are taught that they can have sex but really should feel at least a little bad about it afterward. Either way, we need to do better.  Rodriguez sees it as evidence of the gaps in education: “This is where we are missing the boat about what young people really want from sexuality education. It should be less about plumbing and symptoms and more about the decision making. If we gave young people more opportunities to have honest and real conversations about sex and consider their own feeling and values about it, maybe they would feel better about their decisions.”

Insights like these are why surveys that go beyond who does what, with whom, and how often are important.  This one asks many important questions but, of course, I have many more.  Let’s keep asking so we can understand not just what teens are doing but what they are thinking and feeling in order to make better policies, create better programs, and ensure that teens make decisions they are comfortable with – even after the fact.     

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”