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Tyrie's Tough Times

Experts say a different form of domestic violence has been on the increase since the global financial meltdown hit. They call it "economic abuse."

| Mon May 11, 2009 12:22 PM EDT

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Back in July 2008, this site posted a piece by Rick Shenkman, "How Ignorant Are We?" Based on his book, "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter," it was wildly popular. Now, that book has just been released in paperback, newly updated to include election 2008 (and sorry, despite the new president's qualities, the voters didn't pass the ignorance test this time either). Just thought you'd all want to know. Shenkman, by the way, runs History News Network, an exhilarating website for those who want to find out the latest news direct from history and the latest opinions of historians on the news.]

Recently, Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, pointed out that women "are now a greater share of those employed because the industries where men predominate have been hemorrhaging jobs." In fact, she noted that, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly survey of employers, between the beginning of the current recession in December 2007 and February 2009, job carnage has hit in this way: 76.7% of all nonfarm jobs lost and 73.5% percent of all private-sector jobs lost had been filled by men. This, in turn, puts more pressure on women who are now, in millions of families across the United States, the primary breadwinners.

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At the same time that more women are shouldering a greater burden in the work force, they're also making additional sacrifices at home to mitigate family hardships. "Women will take care of their families before making sure they have what they need to stay healthy," says the American Psychiatric Association's Nada L. Stotland. A recent survey by her organization showed that more than two-thirds of American women interviewed "say that the nation's sagging economy has negatively affected their lives or the lives of their loved ones." The findings also indicate that "women may be neglecting their own needs while focusing on other concerns."

And that's the good news, so to speak. As part of the Tough Times series he has been doing for TomDispatch, Nick Turse ventured into the world of domestic abuse recently and discovered what tough times can really mean for some women. Tom

A Woman at the Edge

Tough Times, Domestic Violence, and Economic Abuse
By Nick Turse

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 40-something 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," Namey notes, "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 in the fall of 2008 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 put her dilemma this way:

 

"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 moneyless, powerless, and alone in the world. One way in which economic abuse occurs, as 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 bread-winners 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 nine in the morning to one in the afternoon, and then, at four, became a security guard until midnight.

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