The connection between intimate partner violence (IPV) and poverty isn’t obvious. In fact, it took me the majority of the summer to understand it. To an extent, intimate partner violence is about control. Abusers feel the need to control their partners in any way they can. They will withhold financial information, use guilt and threats to get what they want and isolate their partners from their support systems. In many cases, this need for control manifests in physical abuse. Intimate partner and domestic violence stretches across all income brackets. Abusers wear suits, skirts and everything in between. That said, the majority of the women and men served by the House of Ruth come from low-income neighborhoods and work minimum wage jobs, if they are employed at all. Most haven’t finished high school and have two or more children to support. Intimate partner and domestic violence are part of a larger patriarchal narrative that the House of Ruth actively engages with and tries to change. The question shouldn’t be “Why didn’t s/he leave?” but “Why did s/he abuse?” Poverty perpetuates this narrative in more ways than one.
As previously stated, intimate partner violence is largely about control. When persons live in poverty, there’s not much that is within their control. They cannot control the job market, the price of housing or minimum wage. They cannot control where they were born, the caliber of schools available to them, or whether or not their parents stayed together—all factors that can contribute to the cycle of poverty. They can, however, control their partners and families. The unique stressors associated with poverty create an environment from which IPV may stem. There is a distinct correlation between IPV and level of income; the lower the income, the higher the likelihood of IPV.
Working at the House of Ruth has taught me so much, in particular, how much my voice matters. In many ways, my voice was the only one speaking for my clients, as the House of Ruth was often their first and last resort. In fact, our services may be the only way they could afford legal representation. Given the correlation between income level and the prevalence of domestic violence, we should devote more resources to addressing the root causes of poverty, in addition to enforcing the legal structures that combat IPV. That said, perhaps the largest takeaway from this internship has been the overwhelming number of men and women that the House of Ruth was unable to serve. We take about 14% of the divorce and custody cases we see each year, a percentage that is considered a success among DV agencies. This highlights an overwhelming need in our society; 86% of victims do not have access to affordable legal representation. The House of Ruth works to close this gap and lend its voice to those who have been silenced by poverty and structural injustice. They cannot find their voice alone, however, and we need to work to ensure victims have adequate resources and access to the legal system.