While new mothers and babies can rely on two more weeks of formula and support through WIC, the shutdown may force the most vulnerable members of this population to remain in, or reenter into, abusive situations, as domestic violence shelters are next on the chopping block.
It’s a tale of two government shutdowns: For those orchestrating it, political adrenaline junkies, and Twitter groundlings, it’s a game of high-stakes theater. For others, it’s a matter of life and death.
As we enter the third week of the shutdown, it’s becoming more clear that for women and babies it’s the latter.
As widely reported, one of the most vulnerable programs during the shutdown is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Almost immediately, panic rippled through statescrunchingnumbers to figure out how long they could fund the safety-net program that keeps over half the babies born in the United States supplied with formula and other necessities.
After the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a memo stating it could keep WIC afloat for “a week or so,” the Pennsylvania department of health announced it could finance the program “for a few weeks.” Then the USDA announced it shuffled enough financial decks to keep the program operational through October.
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While new mothers and babies can rely on two more weeks of formula and support, the shutdown may force the most vulnerable members of this population to remain in, or reenter into, abusive situations, as domestic violence shelters are next on the chopping block if the shutdown continues.
Gov. Tom Corbett has said that the state would continue to step in and reimburse for services until it decides it can’t, but others have recently indicated that the programs are in peril.
“If this isn’t resolved by the beginning of November, you will definitely see a contraction in services,” Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Peg Dierkers told Rewire.
Pennsylvania Budget Secretary Charles Zogby addressed this potential disaster to the Associated Press,which reported that a continued shutdown “could force programs to close … such as subsidized child care, women’s shelters or aid to pregnant women and infants.”
“Right now, it’s maybe more inconvenience,” Zogby said on October 9. “But as we get deeper into the month, it gets more serious.”
The term “women’s shelters” is a bit of a misnomer, as they generally serve both women and children who have survived intimate partner abuse.
Pennsylvania’s network of 60 domestic violence shelters are particularly vulnerable thanks to a cascade of state-level funding challenges stretching back years. First, the long view: Though Gov. Corbett increased state funding for domestic violence services by 10.8 percent in this year’s budget, prior to that, funding was kept flat since 2001. Dierkers estimates that Pennsylvania’s funding of domestic violence services is approximately $2 million behind where it needs to be.
On top of that, Pennsylvania domestic violence organizations (and many other nonprofit human service organizations) have just climbed out of the hole from the state’s notorious budget crisis in 2009. Though the Pennsylvania Constitution demands the budget be signed by midnight of June 30 each year, then-Gov. Edward Rendell did not sign the 2009-10 until October 9. A budget more than 100 days overdue meant organizations had to cope without state funds and some federal funds filtered through the state.
“[The organizations] used up their reserves, and some programs had to obtain lines of credit from the bank,” said Dierkers. “You have to pay interest on that. It cost money, and [loans] aren’t cheap. So it took programs several years for those who had to get a line of credit to repay those.”
Because it’s the end of summer, nonprofits are still recovering from the interruption in funds that comes after new budgets, even when they’re signed on time. Sometimes funds are delayed for up to two months as a sort of financial hangover while paperwork is pushed and checks are signed.
Terri Hamrick runs Survivors Inc., a 28-bed shelter in Adams County. She says staying afloat in the storm is like being “pecked to death by ducks.” Hamrick told Rewire that demand for her rural shelter is higher than ever. Last year, the shelter provided services for 640 people.
“Adams County is a very small area,” said Hamrick. “We’re often sitting full. Last week we were at 36. We really do a lot with a little.” Survivors Inc. also provided services for 178 victims of sexual assault.
Currently, 27 of the people staying at the shelter are children.
Hamrick talked about the challenges specific to operating a domestic violence shelter in a rural area, where many townships don’t even have full-time police.
“We have a state troops barracks and the troopers there are wonderful, but they are also dealing with budget issues and there’s not ever enough money or offices,” she said. “Let’s say something happens in the middle of the night, if the state troopers are working someone else and there’s not full-time police that can respond, a victim may have little other resource than to call us. And we’re here, our staff answers 24 hours a day, and if someone has eight minutes while their abuser is in the shower, they shouldn’t have to call an answering service.”
Hamrick points out that while a cunning abuser can isolate a victim in a densely populated city, it’s easier to do so out in the country, where there are few neighbors and spotty cell phone coverage.
“The economy is not going to make someone abusive, but it will make the violence much worse, and that is what we’re seeing,” she said. “We’re seeing some brutal things.”
There are also hidden costs to the shutdown, like the hours and hours of work going toward kiting funds rather than direct services, and illness and burnout among staff in chronic crisis.
Meanwhile, shelters around the country are struggling.
“It’s disheartening to see … some of our sister programs across the country closing,” said Hamrick. “Or not going to be able to make it next week.”
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
My Life on the Road is part autobiography, part political treatise, and part impressionist account of the amazing people and places Gloria Steinem has encountered during the four-plus decades she’s been an itinerant feminist agitator.
When I was 14, activists Gloria Steinem and Florynce Kennedy came to a synagogue in my hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to give a talk about the then-burgeoning women’s movement. It was the late 1960s, and feminism had begun to ignite wide-scale interest in the struggle they championed. The room was packed to bursting and I recall the thrill of hearing Kennedy pepper her presentation with the word “fuck.” What’s more, I remember the pair’s passion and wit, and left the auditorium feeling excited about the possibility of winning gender equality.
I became a quick convert to what was then known as women’s liberation. Secondarily, I hoped that my life would be as exciting and glamorous as I imagined Steinem and Kennedy’s to be.
Needless to say, I was not unique in this resolution. Indeed, Steinem and Kennedy’s energy was contagious and their presentations undoubtedly influenced audiences around the country—adults as well as teenagers—to envision a more egalitarian world. But Steinem’s latest memoir, My Life on the Road,out today from Random House, does not strongly detail the effects of her activism. Instead, the book is part autobiography, part political treatise, and part impressionist account of the amazing people and places she’s encountered during the four-plus decades she’s been an itinerant feminist agitator. It’s a fascinating gallop through her early years, touching upon her political awakening and campaign involvements as well as the creation of Ms. magazine and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Along the way, she introduces a cast of memorable characters, from cab drivers to congresspeople.
The result is an intensely moving, humble reflection on a remarkable life.
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“When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say, ‘Because I travel,’” she writes in the book’s introduction. In speeches on college campuses and in coffee shops, religious institutions, and community centers, Steinem writes that she not only talks, but listens. “What we’re told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question,” she writes. “In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides.”
Investigating these nuances has motivated Steinem to spend more than half of her adult life traveling, lecturing, and seeking input from Americans throughout the 50 states. Yet there is more to the story. In addition to wanting to spread feminist ideas and ideals, Steinem confesses that there is a far more personal reason for her wanderlust: a psychological longing for movement that mirrors the desires of her larger-than-life father. Leo Steinem “wanted no home at all,” she says, and was content to live out of his car, or in cheap motel rooms, doing a little of this and a little of that to keep himself, his wife, and his two daughters minimally fed and clothed. Steinem’s love for her adventurous dad is obvious, and her early childhood years are, for the most part, presented as pleasant. At the same time, Steinem admits that there were times when she longed for a more stable upbringing, with a school she could walk to and friends and family who lived nearby.
When Steinem was 10, she got her wish. Her parents separated, and she began to live with her mother full-time, first in Massachusetts and then in Ohio. Unfortunately, being settled was not as she’d imagined. Her mother suffered from severe depression and when Steinem was a teenager her mother’s illness prompted her to move to Washington, D.C., to live with her older sister. College, and then a two-year fellowship in India, followed.
Steinem recounts time spent in the ashram of Vinoba Bhave, the leader of an Indian land reform movement, as particularly instructive. Bhave and a team of supporters, including Steinem, walked from village to village, requesting that landowners give a small percentage of their property to the landless. Their methods involved community discussions using a technique that was new to Steinem: the talking circle. “It was the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time. I had no idea that such talking circles had been a common form of governance in most of human history, from the Kwei and San in southern Africa, the ancestors of us all, to the First Nations on my own continent, where layers of such circles turned into the Iroquois Confederacy, the oldest continuous democracy in the world.”
The experience further taught her some organizing basics: “If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. If you hope people will change how they live, you have to know how they live. If you want people to see you, you have to sit down with them eye-to-eye.”
By the time Steinem returned to the United States in the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was in full flower and she credits the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with pushing her to get involved in domestic politics—and feminism. She writes that during the march she found herself standing next to a woman named Mrs. Greene, whose first name she does not include, a Black woman who had worked in a segregated D.C. office during the Truman administration. This indignity was not the only thing that rankled Greene and she grumbled that only one woman, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, was on the dais, and none had been asked to speak to the assembled crowds.
“I hadn’t even noticed the absence of women speakers,” Steinem says, nor had she “thought about the racist reason for controlling women’s bodies.” Still, she writes, “I felt a gear click into place in my mind … Thanks to Mrs. Greene—and many others brave enough to stand up for themselves and other women—I began to understand that females were an out-group.”
Eventually, under the tutelage of Dorothy Pitman Hughes—a now 77-year-old pioneer of nonsexist, multiracial child care, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, and the woman credited with organizing the first shelter for battered women in New York City—Steinem harnessed her fear of public speaking and, with Hughes, began her career as a spokesperson for the emerging feminist movement. “Since we had been successful one on one, Dorothy suggested we speak to audiences as a team. Then we could each talk about our different but parallel experiences, and she could take over if I froze or flagged,” she writes.
Utilizing the talking circle she’d seen in India, she and Hughes helped audiences of women and men of all races and social classes “discover they were neither crazy nor alone in their experiences of unfairness or efforts to be both their unique selves and to find a community,” noting that their attendees “told their own stories.” That said, not everyone was overjoyed with the duo’s message—or that of her later pairing with Florynce Kennedy, who died in 2000—and Steinem reports that on one hand, she was berated by the press as too attractive to be a feminist, and simultaneously called a lesbian, a presumed insult. “I learned to just say, ‘thank you,’” to the insinuation, she writes. “It disclosed nothing, confused the accuser, conveyed solidarity with women who were lesbians, and made the audience laugh.”
Meanwhile, Steinem continued to be in demand as a speaker. Rather than driving in a car alone, she reports that she almost always used public means and includes numerous anecdotes about her encounters with cab drivers and passengers on trains, buses, and planes; all add to the book’s charm.
Similarly, her account of her decades-long friendship with Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, is tender and filled with affection and humor. Her account of Mankiller’s 2010 death, surrounded by Steinem and other loved ones, is also a model for dying with dignity.
All told, most of Steinem’s stories accentuate the positive, and showcase people’s goodness rather than their avarice or malice. Nonetheless, one negative tale zeroes in on author/activist Betty Friedan’s unsuccessful bid to take the helm of the National Women’s Political Caucus at its founding convention in 1971. The way Steinem tells it, Friedan’s arrogance and the lack of supporting sisterhood is appalling. This, however, is an exception in an otherwise upbeat account of Steinem’s work as a feminist community organizer and writer.
There is, however, one glaring omission: Her three-year marriage, which lasted from 2000 until her spouse died in 2003, is never mentioned, leaving me to wonder how she juggled so much travel with maintaining the relationship, or if this was an issue. I also wanted to know if she ever got tired of being on the move.
Although neither topic is tackled, Steinem does write that after she turned 50—years before her marriage at age 66—she began to crave a place of respite and finally took steps to create a comfortable nest to return to when she was not on the road. This, she stresses, did not diminish her enjoyment of travel. It did have an impact though: “I lost the melancholy feeling of Everybody has a home but me. I could leave—because I could return. I could return—because I knew adventure lay just beyond an open door. Instead of either/or I discovered a whole world of and.”
Steinem is now 81 and seems unlikely to retire from writing or speaking anytime soon. My 14-year-old self was right to see her as a role model and My Life on the Road reminded me how pithy and insightful she continues to be. Indeed, she not only provokes optimism about egalitarian possibilities, she inspires new generations to want more and better. She deserves our respect and gratitude.