This piece contains descriptions of violence and sexual abuse that may be triggering.
When my U.S. Army veteran husband hit me while I had our infant in my arms, I didn’t leave. When he choked me with our child wrapped around my ankles in fear, I didn’t leave. When he raped me, degraded me, and psychologically tortured me, I didn’t leave.
People always ask: “Why? — Why didn’t you leave?” What they don’t understand is that survivors often don’t have a real choice, because with physical and mental abuse also comes financial abuse. But I believe a guaranteed income could change that.
When I did finally leave, my abuser set fire to my life. He took from me my $75K/year sales job, my child care, my health care, my housing, my transportation, my lifelong friends and my family of origin. When only embers were left, he took even more through post-separation abuse.
What people don’t realize is that extricating yourself from an abusive relationship or marriage is like being stuck in a Chinese finger trap. On one side: your life, the life of your children. On the other: the structural supports you need to survive. You will never get out while trying to pull both free.
Just like the physical and mental abuse I endured, the financial abuse was meant to entrap me in the relationship. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNDEV), “Financial abuse, while less commonly understood, is one of the most powerful methods of keeping a survivor trapped in an abusive relationship and deeply diminishes the victim’s ability to stay safe after leaving an abusive partner.”
Financial abuse shows up in a lot of ways, but classically includes sabotaging work or employment opportunities. A survivor’s ability to provide for themselves and their children is one of the first supports abuser’s entangle themselves in. It’s a crucial one because financial stability is a primary factor courts use to determine custody and parental fitness.
A financially abusive parent can point to the other and say, “I can provide for the children, they cannot,” meanwhile conveniently hiding the fact that they intentionally and methodically made sure that the survivor could not achieve financial independence from them.
The privilege of the life I led and the tax bracket I was previously in did not protect me from these financial ramifications of Intimate Partner Violence. My abuser was really good at what he did and despite starting out as your typical New England mom — enjoying recreational Target runs, canvassing for Elizabeth Warren and traveling internationally in my free time — eventually I was without any means to support myself.
Almost two and a half years after leaving, my entire life is heavily dependent upon social services. WIC, SNAP, TANF, ICP, Head Start, housing vouchers, food pantries, scholarships, grants. These are programs that are meant to be temporary in theory, to help folks get back on their feet. But they have become the standard of living for far too many survivors and their children, because our economy is rigged so that it supports billion-dollar corporations when they face unexpected hurdles, but not ordinary Americans. And this can cause a cycle of poverty that becomes generational.
“Ruined credit scores, sporadic employment histories, and legal issues caused by the abuse make it extremely difficult to gain independence, safety, and long-term security,” NNDEV explains.
But there is growing momentum for one policy that can not only help support survivors in their efforts to escape, but disrupt that cycle of poverty: Guaranteed income.
Guaranteed income could give Domestic Abuse Survivors like me and my child a real choice — a lifeline out of an impossible situation. Because guaranteed income gives people a choice in how they spend no-strings-attached cash, they can use it for the things their family needs most. For some, that may be stowing it away until it’s safe to leave an abusive situation, or making a payment on a car they can drive to a safe place. For others, it may mean paying for child care so they can find a new job that helps them gain independence once they are free.
Rep. Watson Coleman just introduced a bill to explore a nationwide guaranteed income pilot program, so that everyone, no matter where they live, has the care and safety they deserve in times of trouble. And in Maine where I live, Gov. Mills recently signed into law a budget that includes a fully-refundable child tax credit, which can act as a form of guaranteed income for people with children.
October used to be the month I celebrated the birth of the man I thought I loved. Now, it is a month-long marker of the death of the life I thought I was going to live. To honor everything that it cost me to leave I have a request during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I want everyone to fight for an economy that protects survivors like me from losing everything to escape.
We need to stop asking survivors why they didn’t leave and start asking our local legislators and members of Congress to create economic safety so that there is actually a real choice for people to escape abuse with more than just their lives and the clothes on their back.