Women's Quarterly

The Abuse Excuse

Sally L. Satel on feminists’ latest attempt to gut welfare reform

Feminist organizations usually support any government action that would put more women in the workforce—except when those women are on welfare. In their current battle to gut welfare reform, women’s groups may have found an effective weapon in battered women.

The National Organization for women says that holding abused women to the requirements of welfare reform—those that insist recipients work and end their benefits after five years—will put them in even further jeopardy. How? Forcing these women to leave their apartments to go to a job, NOW says, increases the opportunity for violent ex-lovers to stalk them. The group also insists that battered women shouldn’t be held to the same work schedules as other welfare recipients because their abusive mates might prevent them from getting out the door in the morning, or these women might be embarrassed to show up with a black eye. "For a woman who is already in danger, enforcing the [work requirement and cut-off] would be like making her stand on a trap door," says Kim Gandy, executive vice president of NOW.

NOW and other women’s organizations support a new bill that would, if passed by legislators, permit thousands of women on welfare to opt out of the reforms. The Murray-wellstone amendment on Domestic violence, which is currently making its way through Congress, would permit states to exempt victims of domestic violence from both the five-year cash cut-off and the work requirement.

Current welfare law, however, already makes provisions for women who can legitimately show they need more time to get off welfare, including victims of domestic abuse. As it is, seventy percent of the entire caseload is already exempted from work requirements in 1998. In 2002, when the reforms are fully implemented, half the caseload will still be eligible for exemption. In addition, when the five-year-limit on cash assist-ance takes effect in 2001, states can still exempt twenty percent of their caseload for "as long as necessary," again including abuse victims.

If anything, the amendment puts abused women at even greater risk by turning these women into cash cows for their deadbeat lovers. Consider: a mother and her children are living with a shiftless lout who sponges off her government check, food stamps, and Section 8 apartment. He learns that battered women can keep getting their benefits. If keeping his partner brutalized means a regular check for him, some men will do just that.

What the amendment does, furthermore, is to encourage welfare recipients to turn every altercation between intimates into a documented police emergency. If states require evidence of an arrest, imagine how many households will be calling 911 over minor skirmishes or made-up incidents. What will happen to the real victims of domestic violence if police become cynical over women crying wolf?

Finally, the proposal’s impossibly broad definition of "domestic violence"—including "mental abuse"— means that virtually every woman who wants to can qualify for a temporary waiver from her work requirements. Such requirements "neglect to consider the time…that emotional injuries need to heal," says Gandy. By that logic, a woman who has suffered anguish of any kind should get a pass—for instance, if she claims she’s feeling a little too upset to work one day. Yes, there may be times when real victims need a break. But they already have that under current law.

Despite this, the Senate passed Murray-Wellstone ninety-eight to one last september. If Murray-Wellstone succeeds, it could inflict a heavy blow to welfare reform. For groups like NOW, who claim that workfare is "slavery," that would be a sweet victory. But for mothers on welfare it would be an extraordinary setback. Escaping the rolls means independence for women; a dual freedom from the parasitic men in their lives and the welfare trap. Isn’t this what feminism should stand for?

Sally L. Satel, M.D., is a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine. She serves on the National Advisory Board of the Independent Women’s Forum.