We Need to Talk About the Astounding Costs of Economic Abuse On Families

The long-lasting effects of economic abuse can make it extremely difficult for survivors and their children to leave a dangerous situation let alone recover or rebuild. Here's what you need to know and how all of us can help combat this problem.

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For the vast majority of Amy's* marriage, she wasn't allowed to work, drive, or go to school. She didn't have a car or access to money. She spent most of her time at home with her children.

Despite being unhappy, she stayed in an abusive relationship because her husband came from a wealthy family and she worried she'd lose her children since she couldn't afford an attorney. "The truth is, you don't leave an abuser until the fear of staying is greater than the fear of leaving," she says. When she fled, she took her kids, three bags, and $300 she received from selling her wedding ring. She used the money to pay for a rental car to drive to a domestic violence shelter in another state.

Once they arrived, the shelter didn't have milk; to pay for what she needed, Amy tried to donate plasma for cash—but she couldn't due to her medical history. "It was the first time in my life as a mom that I could not give my children what they needed," she says. "It was one of the hardest days of my life."

Although Amy's story might sound extreme, virtually all domestic violence survivors report that they've also experienced economic abuse: a set of tactics one partner or ex-partner uses to sabotage another person's prospects of a career and education, seize control of their finances, and exploit them. Economic abuse ensnares survivors in invisible cages by taking away their autonomy. In turn, their children are trapped too.

Compounding Losses: How Economic Abuse Harms Survivors and Their Kids

Economic abuse can have wide-ranging effects on a survivor's life, and it often overlaps with other forms of harm like emotional abuse, stalking, and physical violence. Someone's partner may coax them into sharing a joint account or passwords, allot a strict allowance, or steal from them. They might force them to get pregnant, pressure them to drop out of school, or demand they quit their job—all in the name of taking away their freedom.

Joyce* says her husband wouldn't let her get continuing education credits so her license to work in her field expired. His attacks on their own home also set her back financially: He "tore holes in the ceiling of our house, tried to burn it down, tore apart the steps…and then testified in court that our house was a fire hazard and I was a lazy housewife."

Immigrants may also have their status used against them. Sofia*, another survivor, says she ended up paying for a safety deposit box to hide her passport because sometimes her ex would threaten to have her deported.

Then, there's exploitation. Jenn*, for example, was allowed to work off and on—but she had to give all of her earnings to her husband. She also remembers him calling her into his office and ordering her to sign a piece of paper. When she asked what for, he told her to go back to doing housework. "I later came to find out he was opening businesses in my name," she says, "so that if I left him, I would be stuck with years of unpaid tax returns."

"It can be very, very difficult to move past economic abuse because it is a tactic that is meant to create dependency and cut off potential lifelines for safety," says Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski, associate director for workplace and economic justice for Futures Without Violence.

Witnessing abuse is harmful in itself, but when a parent doesn't have resources, their kids are also deprived. "Sometimes we would go without food because my ex-husband drank most of our money away," Jenn remembers. "He also used our children as pawns and would try to pit them against me."

The effects can be devastating. "Family economic insecurity really spills down into young people and shapes their decision-making because of a lack of resources," says Gonzalez Bocinski. A recent study that surveyed nearly 3,000 teens in the U.S. found that almost one in three said they got into a relationship to address an essential need like housing, transportation, or food. One in four exchanged sex to cover the basics.

In the midst of chaos at home, teens may also begin to experience or replicate toxic behavior in their own relationships. In the same survey, over 68 percent of teens said they were pressured or bullied by their partner to neglect their studies, skip class, drop out, or change post-graduation plans to please them. Nearly just as many said their partner had also taken control of their finances or messed with their ability to hold a job. Teens who'd perpetuated abuse said they were typically successful at getting what they wanted. But the majority didn't identify these actions as examples of abuse or said it depended on the situation.

It's an insidious pattern that can emerge early and lead to insurmountable debt. Stagnant wages, a soaring cost of living, and increasing inequities that disproportionately impact women and marginalized people have only added more fuel to what has long been a raging fire.

Nearly three in four survivors stay with their partner or return to them—sometimes for years—because of financial problems, per a 2019 report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Against all odds, many women as well as survivors of all genders manage to save themselves and their children. But the road to recovery can be long and riddled with ongoing attacks.

Freedom Fund: How Survivors Can Create a Financial Safety Plan to Break Free

If you suspect you or a loved one may be experiencing economic abuse—among other forms of domestic violence—the first step is to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says Kim Pentico, director of the economic justice program for the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). Call 1-800-799-SAFE or TTY 1-800-787-3224, text "START" to 88788, or open a chat at thehotline.org. Advocates can help you determine whether you're dealing with abuse, connect you with local resources, and brainstorm a financial safety plan.

For many, one key piece of this process is a "go fund," says Pentico. To work her way out, Joyce secretly got a second job. Other options can include squirreling away money in secret places like Venmo or Paypal, redirecting a portion of your income to a hidden account, or hiding cash. While some use crowdfunding resources like GoFundMe, Pentico advises caution since you don't want to share personal information an abuser could find. At the very least, having someone else manage the fund for you is a smart move.

However, many survivors have little to no social support left. Abusers often isolate their families from everyone else with bad behavior or outright threats—yet another control tactic. And for those who are living in poverty and whose families are also often financially-constrained, the calculations they have to make are even more fraught than for those who, say, have parents who can spot them money for rent.

Leaving and the period immediately after mark the most dangerous time for survivors and—by extension—their kids. Economic abuse only complicates this, as many don't have any resources left. It's also easy for abusers with access to their partner's financial records to review purchases and track them down. That's why Amy had to opt for a shelter in another state.

After arriving, she was determined to create a stable home for her kids. Staff gave her and her children clothes, shoes, food, counseling, assistance with applying for state benefits, legal resources to begin building a case for custody, and access to a WISP scholarship from an economic justice nonprofit. The funds helped her pay for housing and childcare so she could go to college while her kids were in school. "I had so much help that I could never express the amount of gratitude I have," she says.

Multigenerational Problems and Solutions: The Path To Healing From Economic Abuse

After an escape, "it can take as long or longer to recover from the economic effects of financial abuse as it can for other components of the trauma experience," says Francie Schnipke-Richards, vice president of the Allstate Foundation.

Jenn says besides the emotional aftermath, the greatest barrier to recovery for her family was her ruined credit. For years, she struggled to find housing and had to work overtime to pay the IRS the debt her husband had incurred in her name.

For survivors whose education was disrupted by their partner, there may be student loans to pay without the degree and career they wanted. It can be all the more difficult to find a job with hard-to-explain gaps in your resume. Others can't work at all due to homelessness, a lack of childcare, or ongoing harassment.

For her part, Joyce had no idea her husband had run up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in her name until they divorced. "He forced me into bankruptcy," she says. She estimates she's spent $90,000 in legal fees over a decade due to his "frivolous filings," another common economic abuse tactic.

Every year, intimate partner violence costs Americans an estimated $5.8 billion in lost productivity, physical and mental healthcare costs, and legal fees. In total, survivors lose 8 million workdays—the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.

"The impacts are like ripples across someone's lifespan," says Gonzalez Bocinski. "Not only are they impacting the survivors themselves, but also the ability to support their children in the long run."

Joyce works two jobs and doesn't know how her children will afford higher education. "I wonder if I would be a better parent if I weren't exhausted and could listen more to my kids," she says, "but he put us in this situation and the systems keep us here."

Amaka*, a disabled veteran, says her ex withheld child support after a divorce and later won full custody due to her lack of funds. "Disability income is just not enough," she says. "I'm going to become homeless because I can't afford rent, child support, and fighting this with a lawyer for hundreds an hour. It's just not feasible." Survivors can lose their children in court because their ex-partner has more money. Worse yet, judges "often see [a mother] bringing up domestic violence as a ploy—and if she doesn't have hardcore, indisputable proof, that will work against her," says Pentico.

It's important for survivors to take advantage of any and all community resources that are available to them including government assistance, legal aid, financial empowerment courses like the Allstate Foundation's Moving Forward curriculum, and microloans to help rebuild credit through the NNEDV's Independence Project.

However, studies suggest individual remedies are not enough to help survivors recover when economic abuse is ongoing. More funding, research, and resources are desperately needed.

The little money that's available for survivors usually comes with surveillance and strings attached—requirements that replicate the economic abuse they've already endured. "We're really pushing hard to make flexible funding available to survivors because they know best what they need to ensure their own safety," says Gonzalez Bocinski. She says FreeFrom, an L.A. based nonprofit, is leading the way with unrestricted cash grants and a savings-matching program for survivors, among other projects.

The sheer cost of living also needs to be addressed. If we combat larger systemic issues—like the need to end homelessness, improve our healthcare system, and provide affordable childcare—survivors win too, says Pentico.

If you want to help a survivor, direct support can help; ask them what they need. Anti-domestic violence organizations can always use donations.

One thing we can all do is talk to our kids about healthy versus unhealthy relationships as well as how to protect their financial well-being. When teens were asked who they trusted most for advice on relationships and financial management, their top responses were their parents and guardians, followed by siblings and other family members.

"It's going to take the community to recognize this issue and take it really seriously, to make sure we're helping survivors so they don't become so entangled economically that they have no path to independence," says Gonzalez Bocinski. "Engaging families to have these conversations with young people is an untapped resource."

Amy encourages other survivors to not give up or put themselves down if they go back. "Just gather up your strength and try again," she says. "You can make your dreams a reality, and in my darkest moments since I left, I never once regretted my decision to leave."

*Survivor names have been changed for privacy.

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