Recognizing Domestic Violence as an Economic Issue Can Save Lives

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Women from the Metu activist group protest domestic violence along Military Plaza before City Council meets for its B-Session.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Women from the Metu activist group protest domestic violence along Military Plaza before City Council meets for its B-Session.

As a co-author, along with Rogelio Sáenz, Ph.D., of the recent “Status of Women” report, it was a unique experience to be sitting in the audience as the findings of that report were briefed to the City Council last Thursday. One of the most striking parts about the report was the high cost to women experiencing domestic violence, often paying with their lives.

It turns out that incidence of domestic violence –  and murders of women by their male intimate partners  –  are both on the rise in Bexar County, and that we are doing worse than the three other major metropolitan areas in Texas with which we were compared.

Those revelations were sobering. Most  –  but not all  – City Council members and the mayor reflected that mood in their comments. Several even connected those findings with their own personal experiences, whether they were exposed to domestic violence within their own families or had family members who have worked hard to prevent it within their communities.

We only see some of the headlines, or we may know about domestic violence in our own lives. What we sometimes miss, though, is the full scope of it. As Rachel Louise Snyder, who wrote about this first in the New Yorker details in her book, No Visible Bruises, “for every woman killed there are nine who almost die.”

When we talk about domestic violence in San Antonio, we also need to see how it’s connected to another important local issue: how women are doing economically. The Status of Women report finds a connection between higher rates of gender inequality and domestic violence and between a declining wage gap and reduction in violence against women. On that level, domestic violence is also a “business issue,” contrary to what the local Chamber of Commerce head inexpertly declared a few weeks ago.

Dr. Sáenz’ work on the report was the first time I’d seen the link between women’s economic well-being and domestic violence made explicit, but it makes sense. A stronger financial picture for women does imply greater ability to make healthy choices, including leaving an abusive partner.

Then there are the economic costs borne by the workplace, in terms of absenteeism, lost productivity, and actual medical costs for those experiencing domestic violence. Two-thirds of the business leaders whose opinions were cited in a fact sheet produced by the nonprofit, Futures Without Violence, believed their companies’ “financial performance would benefit from addressing the issue of domestic violence among their employees.”

In just the time since I’ve read about the connection between economic well-being and domestic violence rates, it’s opened my eyes to how many other times I’ve seen that connection.

When I was researching women veterans who became homeless after leaving the military, so many said that they’d stayed in unsafe relationships, literally to keep a roof over their and their children’s heads. They spoke of it often as almost a trade-off, risking their personal safety to maintain housing. They were also clear that it was poverty that was driving them to that.

Locally, we know from South Alamo’s Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH)’s recent briefing that family homelessness is up dramatically – 18 percent over last year – even while other forms of homelessness appear to be dropping.

More broadly, when the American Public Health Association’s Caucus on Homelessness produced a policy brief in 2017, they cited research showing that “between 20 and 50 percent of women cite intimate partner violence as a cause of their homelessness.”

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, can also be the reason why women and their families are evicted from housing. Sociologist Matthew Desmond, Ph.D., who won the Pulitzer prize for Evicted, has produced much of the academic research on this as well, including for the MacArthur Foundation. The broad category that connects the dots is something called “nuisance activity,” where the underlying issue may be domestic violence, but the focus of the landlord’s complaint could be something like a hole punched into a wall by an abusive partner, or police being called to a residence during an assault.

Here in San Antonio, evictions are a big problem we rarely talk about. We’re number 5 in the nation, by raw numbers, for eviction – with an average 27 households being evicted daily – according to local data mined and made available by Desmond’s Eviction Lab at Princeton University. There’s a good chance, if we follow Desmond’s logic, that a percentage of those evictions involved domestic violence.

Eviction and homelessness are both disturbing points along the spectrum of poverty. If we go back to the observation in the Status of Women report that improving women’s financial conditions – and in particular, wage equity – could result in a drop in domestic violence, that’s an important connection to make.

San Antonio has widespread poverty, and the overall rate of 18.6 percent obscures the fact that in some ZIP codes and census tracts it’s quite a bit higher. In 78207 on the West side, 38.2 percent lived below poverty level last year; and in 78202, on the East side, it was 34.2 percent, according to American Community Survey estimates for 2017.

In 78207, 25.5 percent of single mothers and their children lived below the poverty level last year; and in 78202, that figure was 18.3 percent. Compared to single fathers, there are five times the number of single mothers living below the poverty line. Once again, gender does make a difference when it comes to earnings, as the Status of Women report points out.

We know from the Status of Women report that women in San Antonio earn about 82.5 cents to every dollar men earn. But if we look into ZIP codes or census tracts, we find just how low those figures can really go. In 78207, the average earnings for women with earnings in the past 12 months, according to ACS estimates, was under $9,784. In 78202, it was $2,292.

Child poverty is equally shocking. In 2017, 97,000 children in San Antonio (more than one in four children) were reported to be living below the poverty level, and 46,000 children (more than one in 10) were living in deep poverty, with family income less than half the federal poverty level — both according to the Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Children in San Antonio who live in deep poverty are often children of color, and also frequently children in single mother households.

Tying this poverty, with its implied connection to evictions and homelessness, back to family violence, we have only to look at recent data compiled by CI: Now to see that those two ZIP codes mentioned above, 78207 and 78202, had two of the highest rates for family violence in 2016.

With all these considerations, and so many more that we could introduce — and with an understanding that low economic status literally can prevent life-saving choices like leaving an abusive relationship — how can we not connect the dots on domestic violence as an economic, as well as a personal issue? If we fail to do that, we continue to close our eyes to the misery of others, and relegate them to a fate that can include death. We need to be way more compassionate, and way more astute than that.

If, as they say, “all politics are local,” it’s time to address the current epidemic of domestic violence in San Antonio by broadening our awareness of all that’s connected to it, and demanding that we see measurable change for this quintessentially vulnerable population. With other issues on the table, from transportation access to child care availability to workforce development, let’s make sure to connect the dots from women’s economic security to their own and their children’s well-being, which may turn out to be a viable way to lower the current horrific numbers of those affected by domestic violence in our community.

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