By Ashley Belanger
November 26, 2021
Financial abuse is violence. That’s what Maid, on track to become the most-watched Netflix mini-series of all time, vividly showed over 10 episodes released last month, effectively raising awareness for this misunderstood form of domestic violence. Netflix projected that within four weeks, more than 67 million people watched Maid’s hero Alex struggle to break free from her partner Sean, the financially controlling and emotionally abusive father of her daughter Maddy.
Of the many viewers who sympathized with Alex, some were moved to act. Maid author Stephanie Land tweeted: “I have heard from a few people that folks are donating to DV shelters in honor of #MAIDNetflix and this is the most beautiful thing. Thank you all so much.” Even Maid star Andie MacDowell, who plays Alex’s unreliable mom, told Land she had a friend inspired to make a donation after viewing.
This sudden outpouring of donations came at a most urgent moment.
The financial abuse that Alex suffered – income barriers like when her abuser cuts off her phone, prevents her from working, or takes away her transportation – was one of the most increased forms of pandemic-related domestic abuse reported, according to a representative from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Reports show abusers nationwide going to new extremes to exert control by limiting Wi-Fi access, lying about pandemic risks, and intercepting stimulus checks.
“There’s so many things that abusers come up with as ways to control you,” Land tells Teen Vogue, and financial abuse is key to isolating victims.
Common forms of financial abuse include taking money without permission, controlling bank accounts, running up debt, credit card fraud, hiding assets, and preventing someone from making money or money-related decisions. Surveys show nearly all domestic violence survivors experience financial abuse and the top reason that survivors stay with abusers is because they cannot afford to leave.
In Maid, we watch Alex dodge Sean’s explosive outbursts and malicious cut-downs while her friends and family deny the validity of her abuse and the direness of her finances. “It’s not just about financial control, but it’s wearing this person down,” Land says. As Alex discovers, the only real solution to the financial abuse she experienced was a stable income source, which allowed her the freedom to access child care, safe housing, transportation, and independence from her abuser.
As the show portrayed, organizations meant to help survivors aren’t always enough. In January, the Journal of Family Violence published results of a National Alliance for Safe Housing survey of 800 pandemic domestic violence service providers. The authors identified guaranteed income as the most promising way the United States could have financially supported survivors through the pandemic’s double whammy: a dramatic spike in domestic violence and a quick erosion of typical survivor safety nets.
Attempting to support as many Americans as possible through the economic shock, the federal government provided stimulus checks, as well as emergency funding to community domestic violence organizations through the CARES Act, but the Journal of Family Violence report showed that organizations still struggled to meet survivors’ basic needs.
For Rimsha – a domestic violence survivor of emotional, physical, and financial abuse who requested her surname and location be concealed for her protection – she already had a restraining order against her abuser in place when the pandemic started. That didn’t stop him from filing her and their children as dependents on his income taxes, and then intercepting her stimulus checks from the Internal Revenue Service.
Rimsha has been working with the nonprofit Safe Horizon to contest ongoing identity theft, the last bastion of her abuse.
While she feels she’s healing from the emotional and physical abuse, it’s the financial abuse she still can’t quite escape, because like most financial institutions, she says the IRS lacks protocols to support domestic violence survivors. Throughout the pandemic, as she’s served as primary caregiver for her special-needs son, it’s been particularly hard to lose out on emergency financial supports like the child tax credit, which was designed to reduce child poverty and serve as a monthly form of guaranteed income for all struggling families.
“I went through hell,” Rimsha says. “The person who put me through hell is enjoying the payments.”
Despite contesting the identity theft since 2019, if Rimsha can’t resolve her stimulus check issue with the IRS by January 2022, she will miss the cut-off for distribution and will never see her payments. She’s not optimistic, and she isn’t the only survivor whose stimulus check got snatched.
The national non-profit organization FreeFrom, based in Los Angeles, provided direct-cash assistance in grants up to $250 to 7,200 survivors in every state and Puerto Rico through the pandemic. They surveyed more than 1,000 grantees on their COVID-19-related setbacks, and heard that stimulus check theft, fewer financial resources, and slowed court proceedings that delayed income from child support were all commonly experienced pandemic impacts that financially drained survivors.
Health policy expert Naomi Zewde has a vision to help all survivors financially recover from pandemic financial abuse.
In May, she coauthored a bold policy proposal to abolish poverty through The New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy. In “A Guaranteed Income for the 21st Century,” it’s outlined how the federal government could use a progressive tax code to increase taxes on the rich and guarantee income for everyone who earns less than the national median household income (between $50,000 for single-adult households and $70,000 for two-adult households).
It’s designed to lift everyone above the poverty line for what’s estimated to be half the cost of similar policy proposals, by directing funds only to the poorest households in America, including the one in four women-headed households who live in poverty. Under the policy, impoverished survivors would qualify for up to $12,500 in annual income, and an additional $4,500 per child. By providing stable income, Zewde believes the policy proposal shows how the U.S. could build a functioning safety net for domestic violence survivors, fortifying the fragile web of pre-existing services that the pandemic proved were inadequate to meet basic needs. And that safety net would be there for every American.
“Everyone would have access to assets,” Zewde says. “Whether or not we’re in a pandemic situation, everyone just has like a financial foundation that they can fall on.”
Zewde says this foundation would cover basic necessities as needed, but could also provide funds that anyone who’s poverty-stricken can use “to build themselves up and to make moves in the world and to make choices and to live out their dreams.”
In Maid, Alex attempts to leave her abuser, but his financial abuse keeps her snared. At an especially dire point, she is symbolically shown at the bottom of a pit, her eyes devoid of fight. By the end of the mini-series, she’s worked her way out, methodically plotted her escape and reached new heights in life, literally climbing a mountain with her daughter Maddy. In fiction as in reality, it takes Alex setting up stable income sources to adequately plan for the future and end her financial insecurity.
That happy ending remains a fantasy for many survivors.
For survivors of the most extreme forms of pandemic financial abuse, like Rimsha, getting out of that pit will require more than grit and extra maid shifts. It will require systemic changes where government agencies and financial institutions acknowledge the pervasiveness of financial abuse. FreeFrom reports the average financial abuse survivor loses more than $20,000 in income and accrues nearly $16,000 in coerced debt annually.
“The worst thing in the world is when you want to get out and you cannot get out, because you don’t have money,” Rimsha says, adding she feels uncertain of any proposed guaranteed income disbursed through the tax code after her struggle with the IRS.
Zewde agrees with Rimsha that any guaranteed income disbursed by the IRS would only benefit the survivor if they filed taxes on their own, but that once they do file as individuals, they would at least know that money was coming.
“The idea of some type of guaranteed income, obviously, is important and necessary and needed,” says Blair Dorosh-Walther, Safe Horizon program manager for economic empowerment and shelters. “But it doesn’t help if survivors don’t actually get it.”
To better protect survivors, Dorosh-Walther recommends in part establishing an advisory committee to consult with government agencies and create pathways to resolve common survivor issues.
“It’s stressful,” Rimsha says. “I’m still scared, what’s going to happen in the future,” Rimsha says.
The federal government has yet to seriously pursue enacting guaranteed income policy but recently recognized the power of providing cash assistance. President Joseph Biden promised to allocate $5 billion through the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act to community organizations to provide cash assistance to survivors in need.
Advocates view this as an important step toward protecting more survivors, funding effective intervention before finances become dire and preventing abuse before it becomes deadly.
FreeFrom is one of nine organizations in a national group coordinated by the National Alliance for Safe Housing to provide flexible funding grants to survivors, fundraising close to $6 million and providing grants to thousands of survivor households. The largest grant NASH has awarded so far was almost $6,000.
NASH founder and co-author of the Journal of Family Violence report Peg Hacskaylo says this flexible funding initiative existed before the pandemic, but was expanded to help serve more survivors remotely through the pandemic.
An unexpected result of scaling up the project was that Hacskaylo discovered that cash assistance helped many survivors skip the hurdle of finding shelter.
“When we understood the power of just giving survivors financial resources to be able to get themselves safe without having to go into shelter, that was a total game changer,” Hacskaylo says, adding that “when we evaluated the project, we found that not only did survivors have longer housing stability as a result of the project, but they saw reduced incidence of repeat abuse.”
FreeFrom discovered exactly how little money it takes to turn a survivor’s life around. Their survey found on average, survivors need $730 to stay safe. “It’s such an obvious thing to do,” Hacskaylo says. “Oh, right, give survivors money.”
But there has long been a stigma against any kind of cash assistance. The success of NASH’s project could work to disprove the stigma and Hackskaylo and Amy Durrence, director of systems change initiatives at FreeForm, say that some private funders are seeing the value of direct cash assistance.
Zewde believes there’s one missing ingredient to generate the kind of momentum we’re seeing around cash assistance and form an effective push for guaranteed income as a national policy response to the pandemic: Political will. For now, there is more movement in starting guaranteed income programs at the local level, with encouraging pilot programs attempting to combat poverty in a handful of U.S. cities.
Without broader systemic change like guaranteed income, financially-strained domestic violence survivors will continue to rely on cash-strapped organizations. FreeFrom unfortunately had to pause Safety Fund applications after the waiting list hit 3,000. And the National Alliance for Safe Housing has plans to launch an application next year that would streamline flexible funding requests and track funding sources, so survivors wouldn’t have to verify expenses. But first they just need the funding to build that technology.
As a survivor of financial and emotional abuse, Land’s goal for Maid was to raise awareness of how hard single mothers work to escape poverty, and her next book Class, about the American education system, will go one step further, showing her five-year slog to get off government assistance.
Through the Netflix adaptation, Maid also raised awareness of what financial abuse looks like, and it began trending after the pandemic exposed how vicious and widespread the issue really is.
When Rimsha logged into Netflix and saw Maid trending, she couldn’t believe so many people cared about a story that sounded so much like hers. She’d already read Land’s book and considered it an accurate picture of financial abuse.
“I was really happy when I saw it trending,” Rimsha says. “I was like, yes, finally people can understand.”