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A woman's wages drop if she files for a restraining order, researchers say

Salary Matrix

New study shows economic consequences of trying to leave an abusive partner

By Alice Robb on March 20, 2015

Domestic abuse is a disaster for women’s finances–but so is trying to escape it, new research shows. When battered women file for a restraining order, they are likely to suffer significant financial losses, according to a new paper in the American Sociological Review.

When Melanie Hughes and Lisa Brush, sociologists at the University of Pittsburgh, set out to evaluate the economic impact of filing for a “protection from abuse” order (PFA), they anticipated that the outcomes of the cases they’d study might be positive: Perhaps acquiring a PFA–and with it some respite from an abusive relationship–would free up women’s time, allowing them to work more hours or pursue higher-paying jobs. But what they found was the opposite. “The time surrounding petitioning is one of tremendous earnings instability for women,” Hughes told Women in the World in a phone interview. “Women are experiencing instability and also a short-term fall in their earnings.”

Hughes and Brush analyzed the records of nearly 4,000 women in Allegheny County, Pa., who asked a judge for a PFA between 1995 and 2000. (They considered women seeking temporary, 10-day restraining orders as well as extended PFA’s lasting 12 to 18 months.) Hughes and Brush compared the women’s earnings in the periods before and after filing for a PFA, and found that they endured significant economic consequences, amounting to a loss of between $312 and $1,018, in the year after seeking a restraining order.

And they didn’t make that money back, at least in the period under study. “The decline that women are experiencing at the time of petitioning may linger,” says Hughes. “If we look at the period before and after, we estimate that women continue to lose even more money, six months out and beyond. They are not recouping the losses they experience at the time of petitioning.”

Women seeking a restraining order are already in a vulnerable position economically, she pointed out. “We know from past research that both the physical and emotional injuries from abuse can interfere with women’s work,” Brush explained. “It could be that they can’t go to work because they’re in too much pain. It could be that they can’t perform well because they have a head injury. It could be that they need to seek medical attention, and can’t be in two places at once.”

Trying to leave an abusive partner incurs a whole set of risks–psychological, physical, and, the new study shows, financial. Abusers may “ratchet up the abuse to try to control the situation,” Hughes suggested. Women might need to take time off to find a new, safe place to live. And when women do move out, their partners might look for them at work. “The workspace becomes a place where abusive men can target women who have taken steps to leave,” said Brush.

In a pretty gloomy paper, Brush and Hughes have one positive finding: Women receiving welfare recover more quickly. “Welfare helps mitigate the worst of the economic turmoil associated with that period of petitioning,” says Hughes. And one recommendation the sociologists offer: “This research suggests that we need to provide economic resources to many more women.”