April is National Financial Literacy Month in the USA. It was established to promote and maintain healthy financial habits in the public. Especially in a climate where finances deeply divide huge swaths of the public, and when the past year has brought the differences in financial well-being into sharp relief, it’s even more important to be aware of how financial literacy affects our neighbors, family, and friends. One area often left out of the spotlight is how finances are entangled with domestic abuse.
When most of us think of domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, we imagine physical injury or emotional harm. This is what we see in posters, on television, and in movies. What is less obvious, but present in almost all domestic violence, is financial abuse. Exerting unwanted control over finances while utilizing the same methods of coercion and grooming as other forms of abuse, creates barriers and hurdles that can keep victims trapped.
Financial abuse is more than taking a victim’s paycheck. Financial abuse can be institutional, like blocking the financial autonomy of acquiring a credit card, coercing access to bank accounts, not allowing a victim to maintain a budget, and more. It can mean the abuser destroys a victim’s credit by running up debt on a credit card in the victim’s name. Financial abuse can include preventing a victim from working outside of the home. In fact, up to 59% of domestic abuse victims who receive public assistance said they experienced that type of abuse.
In addition, if domestic violence victims are in the working world, more than a half report harassment by an abuser at their place of work. An even higher number report an abuser creating situations forcing the victim to arrive to work late or need to leave early. This frequently occurs when children are involved and a pick-up or drop-off is intentionally delayed or repeatedly overlooked. Missing work as a result of abuse can sometimes lead to losing their jobs, continuing the cycle of poverty for domestic violence victims. These direct abuses can cause victims to lose a sense of financial autonomy and confidence in their own ability to budget or even handle money.
Financial abuse, like most abuse, is about control and exerting power. On a micro level, it can look like an abuser doling out an “allowance” and demanding receipts for every purchase or compelling a victim to sign over inherited property or assets or even hiding assets. It can sound like being forced to request money for prescriptions or sanitary supplies every time they are needed. It can feel like panic when the cash a victim is given for groceries isn’t enough, and they need to decide which items on the abuser’s list can be safely put back on the shelf. Again, like other forms of domestic violence, financial abuse is about controlling the victim, making them doubt their abilities and feel unable to trust themselves. The results are insidious and long-lasting.
A lack of financial autonomy translates into a lack of overall autonomy. That’s just the reality. Awareness of financial abuse is an important first step towards breaking through the barriers it creates. Locally, at Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates (SOFIA), the Soar to Success workshops address topics as wide-ranging as couponing, building credit, handling a bank account, and entrepreneurship. The social-emotional workshops partner with the financial programs to help build up confidence and self-reliance for those who have experienced domestic violence. Gaining confidence in one’s abilities after years of coercion and control is key to becoming positive, self-sufficient and successful members of our society. With Awareness There is Hope!
Other resources include Allstate Foundation’s series of online lessons around Financial Planning and Management. For more details about the different forms of financial/economic abuse and domestic violence, visit the Essex County Family Justice Center’s page. The National Network to End Domestic Violence also has solid information on the topic.
The writer serves as the Vice President of the Board for Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates (S.O.F.I.A.).