It's Time to Make the Gender Wage Gap History

Twenty-one cents on the dollar.

This is the striking yet typical disparity in pay, relative to men, that millions of working women faced last year.

This month, as we mark Women’s History Month and celebrate the many strides made towards gender equity, we should renew our commitment to closing the gender wage gap and ensuring that all women are able to achieve their full earning potential.

From the late 1970’s into the early 2000’s, much headway was made in closing the gap in median annual pay between full-time working men and women. But progress on reaching pay equity has all but stalled, and the wage gap has stubbornly endured, at about the same size, since 2005. Gendered pay inequity has indeed remained a fixture of the U.S. economy, persisting in nearly every occupation and at every level of educational attainment. And, as it always has, the gap hits women of color the hardest: for every dollar that a white male earns, African-American women earn only 63 cents, and Latinas and Hispanic women, just 54 cents.

So what continues to drive this disparity?

Certainly, as many rightfully point out, blatant discrimination explains a lot of it. Researchers estimate that sex discrimination could account for as much as 41% of the gap. Many women simply aren’t receiving equal pay for equal work.

But there’s more to the wage gap than just wage discrimination for the same or similar jobs.

For one, adult women, and particularly women of color, are wildly overrepresented in low- and minimum-wage industries. Of the 23 million workers who occupy positions that pay $10.50 per hour or less, two-thirds are women, and just under a third are women of color. These women have suffered greatly from wage stagnation in recent decades, due in large part to an eroding federal minimum wage — which, in terms of purchasing power, has lost a quarter of its value since 1968. Wages for these workers aren’t merely low; they are frankly unlivable.

This heavy concentration of women in low-wage work is indicative of the occupational segregation that pervades the labor market more broadly. While many of the formal barriers that kept women from working in professions traditionally occupied by men have been torn down, stereotypes about jobs at which women and men “naturally” excel still segregate industries by gender at every skill level of employment. Whether it’s driving a truck, laboring in construction, or undertaking a STEM career, women are discouraged, explicitly and implicitly, from pursuing these and other nontraditional occupations — even though they are qualified to do so. Instead, they are concentrated in industries and fill occupations that are important — as home health aides, administrative assistants, registered nurses — but not as remunerative.

But even within relatively integrated industries, men tend to be situated in positions higher up on the pay scale. For example, in the restaurant industry, men comprise 48% of the workforce, but are 54% of the managers and 86% of the head cooks. Women, on the other hand, hold an outsized share of lower-paying, front-line service jobs — like cashiering and waiting tables.

On top of facing a hefty wage penalty for doing “women’s” work, women are also hit with an undue tax on caregiving. In the United States, women shoulder most of the unpaid caregiving labor. And, as a result, they are often forced to leave or spend less time in the labor market — sacrificing earnings, work experience, and even promotions.

While the causes of the gender wage gap might be more pernicious than often acknowledged, the consequences are quite clear: these disparities in earnings undermine the financial security of not only women, but also their families, year in and year out, all the way into retirement.

The effects are particularly deleterious for women in low-wage industries. These workers, in addition to receiving unlivable pay, are less likely to have access to prerequisites that help balance work-family life and are also more vulnerable to pregnancy discrimination. For these women, calling off sick to take care of an ill child or being prematurely forced into unpaid maternity leave can be devastating. As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) points out, the wage gap and its constitutive elements push millions of these women and their families into, or deeper into, poverty.

So what’s to be done?

The complexity and high stakes of the gender wage gap demand an urgent, multi-pronged policy offensive. They include, strengthening education and training for nontraditional jobs would undermine the negative effects of occupational segregation. Paid sick leave, fair and predictable work schedules, and access to high-quality, affordable childcare would go a long way in ensuring that women aren’t penalized for caregiving responsibilities. Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation would improve the economic security of millions of women. And, of course, policies that demand more transparency from employers and strengthen workers’ ability to raise discrimination claims would help root out discrimination in the workplace.

Women have made significant progress in the workforce in the last half century. Yet, as the persistence of the gender wage gap suggests, there is still much progress to be made. The financial security of millions of workers and their families is at stake. It’s time to make the gender wage gap history.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post.

Why the Promise of the Violence Against Women Act Continues to Be Denied

[Editor’s Note: This blog post was coauthored by Neha Lall, Senior Attorney at LAF.]

On October 8, 2014, Mary Ann Blakemore faced one of the darkest days of her life. Her daughter’s abusive boyfriend was at her home and demanding to be let in.  Ms. Blakemore yelled at him to leave and that she was calling the police. The police had brought Ms. Blakemore’s daughter and young children to her doorstep a few days earlier and asked that they stay until the police could arrest the man threatening their lives. Ms. Blakemore did what any mother would do—she took them in. Now she was faced with the crazed man face-to-face. After leaving for a short time, he came back and firebombed the home. Ms. Blakemore suffered burns over 25% of her body, and her infant granddaughter was also severely burned.

Child's drawingA month later, Ms. Blakemore awoke from a medically induced coma and began the slow road to recovery. As one nightmare ended, a new one began. The Housing Authority of Cook County, from which Ms. Blakemore leased a public housing unit, informed her that her unit had been destroyed. She repeatedly requested a new apartment, but they refused. Instead, housing authority officials blamed her for the fire, stating that she should never have allowed her daughter to stay in the first place. Without a place to go and no possessions to her name, Ms. Blakemore had no choice but to stay with relatives who had neither the space nor the means to provide her with a permanent home. Even after she found a legal aid lawyer to assist her, the housing authority dug in, refusing to provide Ms. Blakemore a new unit even though they were legally required to do so.

The housing authority’s actions were not mere oversight or incompetence; they were discriminatory. While Ms. Blakemore was told she had no housing options, the housing authority immediately re-housed her neighbors who were also displaced as a result of the fire. Their belongings were carefully packed and stored at the housing authority’s expense. They were treated like any crime victim should be treated—with dignity and compassion—while Ms. Blakemore was treated like a criminal.

Although Ms. Blakemore’s injuries are unusually egregious, the attitudes of the housing authority officials she dealt with are sadly all too common. In 2005, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) became law. For the first time, VAWA made clear that federal housing providers could not deny housing to or evict victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking due to the conduct of perpetrators or their status as survivors. In 2013, VAWA was expanded to cover most federal housing programs, sexual assault survivors, LGBT survivors, and undocumented individuals. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity also issued important guidance describing how discrimination against victims of domestic violence, the vast majority of whom are women, can constitute sex discrimination. Yet nearly a decade later, stories of mistreatment and discrimination against survivors of violence continue to come to light. Some housing authorities and project owners essentially continue to operate in a pre-2005 universe, where victim-blaming is the norm.

When the housing authority would not relent, Mary Ann Blakemore filed a federal lawsuit.  She stood up to the housing authority just as she had stood up to her daughter’s abuser. A few weeks ago, she finally secured the justice she had been denied. But for most survivors, litigation is not a realistic option. Survivors escaping abuse struggle to find safety, protect their children, and recover from trauma. Few are able to access free legal services. Holding housing providers accountable should not be another battle that survivors have to fight.

HUD should step up and enforce VAWA. Given that it is charged with administering the bulk of federal housing programs, HUD should audit and monitor housing authorities and project owners to ensure their compliance with VAWA. HUD should create a complaints procedure though which survivors can complain, directly to HUD, about VAWA violations by housing providers. If those providers are found to be out of compliance, HUD should enforce the law, just as it does when housing providers fail to maintain appropriate housing conditions.

Housing providers also need to step back and evaluate their existing policies and practices to determine if they comply with VAWA. Implementing VAWA is as much about attitude as it is about policies on paper. Knee jerk responses like those of Ms. Blakemore’s property managers spring from deep-seated beliefs that victims of violence are themselves responsible for the abuse they suffer. Staff training, collaborations with domestic violence and sexual assault programs, and a willingness by providers to dig deep to remove any bias towards survivors are some important first steps in creating an atmosphere where survivors are protected rather than punished. Only then can Mary Ann Blakemore’s tragic story become a part of our history rather than our future.


Updated Guide to Public Benefits in Illinois Will Help Postsecondary Students Get Ahead

You shouldn’t have to choose between making rent and making it to class or training, between putting food on the table and putting yourself in a position for a bright future, between getting by and getting ahead.

But unfortunately, these are the tough decisions that many students pursuing postsecondary degrees or job training have to make. And though most postsecondary students find it tough to support themselves, nontraditional students, including students who have dependents or who did not enter school immediately after high school, face particularly acute financial struggles.Take those enrolled in college: 71% nationwide work full or part time, and over half come from low-income households.  

Postsecondary education can be particularly challenging for women. About one out of every three woman enrolled as an undergraduate is raising a child, and women account for 81% of undergraduates who are low-income, single-parents. Juggling class or job training with work is an arduous and expensive venture in and of itself — but the added personal and financial responsibilities of parenting make it even more difficult and costly. 

Squeezed by the grind to make ends meet, many will be forced to drop out of school or discontinue job training, jeopardizing their future employment prospects and opportunities for upward mobility.

Public benefits can, and often do, serve as a critical resource for struggling students. Research has shown — time, time, and time again — that students with access to financial support are much more likely to graduate because they are able to dedicate more time to learning and less to stressing over bills.

The Shriver Center’s new publication, Getting Ahead: An Adult Student’s Guide to Public Benefits in Illinois, is intended to help struggling students get the help they need. The Guide offers information on eligibility and how to apply for a variety of benefits available to adult students. Benefits covered include SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), healthcare, Child Care, and housing benefits, among others. The Guide also includes a section with tips on how students can better advocate for themselves and protect their right to the public assistance they need.

This updated version of the Guide is published online and has been redesigned to be more accessible and user-friendly. Now, students can find the resources they need more quickly, even on a mobile phone. A PDF of the full text is also available for download.

We invite you to pass Getting Ahead: An Adult Student’s Guide to Public Benefits in Illinois on to any students, educators, school counselors, administrators, or social service providers who may need guidance. We also encourage colleges, universities, job training providers, and other social service organizations to post the Guide on their sites.

It could be the difference, for many, between being held back and getting ahead. 

If you have any questions about how to use the guide, please email  

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post. 

Child Care Assistance Threatened in Illinois

Child care assistance is a critical resource for low-income families. Parents with reliable, affordable child care are able to work, and to work more hours and earn a greater income, than those who do not. Research shows that parents receiving child care assistance have increased earnings of as much as $7,500 per year more than families with less assistance. Unfortunately, child care also represents a significant expense, in particular for low-income workers. The monthly cost of child care in Illinois for a family with a preschooler and a school-age child is $1,469, while the monthly earnings for a family with one minimum wage earner is a mere $1,430. Women working low-wage jobs already struggle with unpredictable schedules, little access to paid leave, and a lack of work supports overall; low-income, working women and their children need the stability that child care assistance provides.
Recent actions by the Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration threaten the availability of the state’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). In July, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) proposed rules that make changes to the current program, most notably lowering the maximum amount of income a family may have to be eligible for assistance, adding a child support requirement, increasing copays, and increasing the use of criminal background checks for child care providers. 
Income eligibility. The proposed rules reduce the income threshold for CCAP from 185% of the federal poverty line (FPL) to an astoundingly low 50% of the FPL for new applicants. As a result, a family of four applying for assistance would need to have income of less than $1,011 per month to be eligible. A single parent earning Illinois’s state minimum wage of $8.25 would need to work fewer than 18 hours per week to earn below the 50% threshold. Although the proposed rules allow current recipients to maintain child care at the 185% income level, the 50% threshold essentially eliminates access to safe and reliable child care for most parents newly seeking assistance. Nine out of ten families that were approved under the previous income guideline of 185% of the FPL will now be denied under the proposed income guideline.  
Child support requirement. The proposed rules also require families that include any child in the household with an absent parent to open an active collection child support case for that child with the Division of Child Support Services (DCSS) as a condition of eligibility for CCAP. This is problematic as it poses a significant danger to survivors of domestic or sexual violence who may not want to re-engage with the perpetrator. It also ignores the reality of many CCAP recipients’ family circumstances; often, the noncustodial parent is also poor and either under- or unemployed, and forcing custodial parents to cooperate with child support collection may also upset the fragile balance they have found in keeping the noncustodial parents involved in their children’s lives. 
Call to action. IDHS will hold public hearings in Chicago and Springfield to solicit feedback from community members on these proposed rules. We have heard from low-income workers who lost their new jobs because they no longer qualify for CCAP, including domestic violence survivors on the path to financial independence who were forced to return to their abusers once child care assistance was denied. If you have been or could be affected by the proposed rules, or if you are a service provider whose clients are affected, we encourage you to testify at one of the hearings. 
Witnesses must bring a written (preferably typed) copy of their testimony to submit to the hearing officer. Each testimony is limited to no more than 10 minutes. You can sign up to testify at the hearing. If you are interested in testifying or are not available to testify but have information to relate, please contact Wendy Pollack, the director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center. 
The details for the hearings are:
Tuesday, October 6th, 2015
10:00 AM-12:00PM
Michael J. Howlett Bldg. Auditorium
Second and Edwards Streets, Springfield, IL
Wednesday, October 7th, 2015
Michael A. Bilandic Bldg., Room C-500, 5th Floor
160 N. LaSalle, Chicago, IL
For more information on the hearings, please see the IDHS Public Hearings section of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules’ September 4th Flinn Report.
For more information on the proposed changes, see September’s WomanView article


A New Season for Domestic Workers

As summer holidays end and we celebrate Labor Day, it’s a good time to remember the workers who care for the things we value most in life: our children, homes, parents, and neighbors. Although their contributions often go unnoticed, domestic workers make it possible for seniors and people with disabilities to live with dignity in their own homes, for busy families to provide safe, reliable care for their children, and for all of us to be more productive.

An estimated 2.5 million domestic workers--including housekeepers, nannies, and personal aides--are hard at work in the United States. As the population ages and more parents of young children work outside of the home, these are among the fastest growing jobs in the economy. Domestic workers play an essential role in the workforce, providing services that free the rest of us to work outside of the home.

Yet, domestic workers remain some of the least protected and most exploited workers in the U.S. Domestic workers are excluded from most worker protections that ensure a fair wage, a safe work environment, and freedom from abuse and exploitation. Consequently, many domestic workers are paid below minimum wage, receive no benefits or overtime pay, have no sick leave, work beyond scheduled hours, are denied meal and rest breaks, and suffer physical and verbal abuse with no possible recourse. The vast majority of domestic workers are women working alone and behind closed doors, making them particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, low pay, and other unfavorable working conditions.

In Illinois, we have an opportunity to right this historic wrong. The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, HB 1288, would ensure domestic workers in Illinois have the right to a minimum wage, to be paid for all work hours, to a day of rest, and to protection from sexual harassment. This important legislation has passed the Illinois House and is expected to come before the Senate on Wednesday, September 9. If you are an Illinois resident, please take action to support HB 1288 by contacting your state senator. Ask them to vote yes on HB 1288.

Domestic workers are securing worker protections in other states, too. New York, California, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Hawaii have passed similar legislation to protect domestic workers in recent years, and momentum is building around legislative efforts in many other states, including Connecticut and Colorado.

Labor Day is the traditional end of summer. As the season changes, and most of us head back to school and to work, let’s remember the domestic workers who care for our homes and family members. It’s time to ensure that domestic workers enjoy the same workplace protections that the rest of us enjoy.


Two Legal Aid Programs Secure Unemployment Benefits for Domestic Violence Survivors

L.S.’s abuser found her at her workplace in Georgia. She felt that she had no choice but to leave her job and escape to a domestic violence shelter with her children. Another woman, E.C., lived hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C., but faced a similar problem. Her abuser showed up repeatedly at her workplace, and to appease him, she broke workplace rules by allowing him onto the property. She lost her job as a result.

Without the income from their jobs, L.S. and E.C.’s situations became ever more precarious. They applied for unemployment insurance benefits, but Georgia and D.C. did not approve their claims.

Both women turned to their local legal aid programs for assistance. And during the same week in June 2014, both women won their cases in their respective courts of appeals.

The attorneys for L.S. and E.C. have written about their work on these cases in our two most recent advocacy stories. Jennifer Mezey and Drake Hagner with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia wrote about their work on E.C.’s case. Their challenge was to ensure that the courts interpreted D.C.’s unemployment coverage of people who lost their jobs “due to domestic violence” in such a way as to give full benefits to people in situations like E.C.’s. Lindsey Siegel and Kimberly Charles of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society wrote about L.S.’s case and their work to make sure Georgia’s unemployment insurance program considered escaping domestic violence to be “good cause” for leaving a job.

While the particular laws and facts of their cases differed, these advocacy stories show that L.S. and E.C.’s attorneys approached their cases in similar ways. Both used appellate advocacy for one client to benefit a broader group of people. Both secured an amicus brief from a domestic violence advocacy group to support their reading of the unemployment law at issue and how that law covered their clients’ actions.

Perhaps most importantly, both the D.C. and Atlanta attorneys built a robust record at the administrative hearing level. In both cases, a key part of that record was the testimony of a domestic violence expert who gave context to L.S. and E.C.’s actions and explained how abuse and fear affect a victim’s decision making.

Each of these advocacy stories is interesting on its own terms, but when read together, they paint a rich picture of the diligent advocacy that legal aid programs take to improve the lives of their clients and others in similar situations. Economic independence is often necessary for someone who has experienced domestic violence to escape the situation. Making unemployment insurance available to support survivors if the violence follows them to work can help them avoid having to choose between their safety and their economic well-being.

Women Gain Back Jobs Lost Since the Recession, But Gendered Economic Inequalities Persist

Woman at workThis past summer officially marked the fourth year of recovery following the 2007-09 recession, dubbed a “mancession” by some. Men lost more jobs during the recession, both in terms of absolute numbers and percent reduction in employment, and now, in the fourth year of recovery, women are gaining jobs lost back at a faster rate than men. A recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) shows that, as of June 2013, women have regained nearly all of the jobs that they lost in the recession, while men are still struggling to catch up. At first glance, this may sound like good news for women’s employment and gender equality in the workforce. But a closer look at the areas in which men and women have gained and lost jobs in the years following 2007 reveals that the United States still has a long way to go before we can declare that women are equal to, let alone outperforming, men in the job market.

The primary reason that men were hit harder during the recession is that men are more highly concentrated in industries such as manufacturing and construction, which suffered the greatest job losses during those years. These industries have experienced slower recoveries, as well, which accounts for the fact that men have yet to gain back about 30 percent of the jobs that they lost in the recession. Industries where women are disproportionately represented, such as education, healthcare, leisure, and hospitality, however, fared relatively well. The education and health sectors in particular have expanded in the intervening years, adding over 1.6 million jobs since June 2009, 1.1 million of which went to women. It is important to consider, however, that much of the job growth that has benefitted women since the recession has been focused primarily in low-wage, low-security positions in hotels, restaurants, retail, education, and home health. And overall, more men are still employed than women: 76.2 million men as opposed to 67 million women. Job segregation and the gender wage gap remain alive and well, with men and women working in different industries and even in different areas within industries, playing a big part in these unequal numbers.

Gender inequality in the workforce is nothing surprising or new: a large part of the reason that the gender wage gap persists in 2013, fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, is that women are concentrated in lower-wage industries and underrepresented in higher-paying leadership positions in almost every industry, even those that are predominantly female. Women also continue to earn less in the same occupations. Even in Boston, home to the best-educated women of any major U.S. city, women earn an average of 83 cents for every dollar that men earn. Nationally, the wage gap is even wider, at 77 cents to the dollar.

Economic recovery since the recession has not remedied these types of gendered economic inequalities. The IWRP’s report shows that while women have gained back over 90 percent of the jobs that they lost since the start of the recession, men have gained back proportionately more jobs or lost proportionately fewer jobs within each industry relative to women. Even in education and healthcare, the industries that account for much of women’s job recovery since the recession, women’s employment increased only 6.9 percent as opposed to a 10.9 percent increase for men, a 4.0 percent gender gap in job growth within these sectors. And the gender poverty gap in the United States has not decreased, but rather increased, during the recovery, with 16.3 percent of women and 13.6 percent of men living in poverty in 2012. While male poverty has decreased since 2010 despite the relatively slower recovery of male jobs, female poverty has stagnated during that time.

The fact that women have gained back in absolute numbers the jobs that they lost since the recession should not be construed as evidence for the so-called “end of men” or even definitive progress toward economic equality for men and women. Women are still disproportionately represented in positions that pay less and offer less job security and, on average, receive less compensation for similar education and skills. Economists predict that as the economy continues to recover in the next few years, men will regain the remaining 2.1 million jobs they have lost since 2007. The issue of job segregation by gender must be considered as we look at reports that indicate positive economic gains for women. Until equal pay and equal representation across industries and positions for women are a reality, gender inequality in the workplace will continue to be an issue that deserves not only our attention, but meaningful action.

Teresa Wisner contributed to this blog post.


"Crime Free" But At What Cost?

A New York Times article published over the weekend tells the upsetting story of domestic violence survivor Lakisha Briggs.  Ms. Briggs was forced to sue Norristown, Pennsylvania after the city tried to push her out of her home based on calls made to the police as a result of her abuser’s violence against her.  In doing so, Norristown was actually enforcing a local ordinance that authorized this very outcome.  Because of the municipality’s threats to her housing, Ms. Briggs was too scared call the police when she most needed help and her abuser ended up putting her in the hospital.

The stories of Lakisha Briggs and William Zarnoth that were relayed in the recent Times article are just two examples of how tenant families, landlords, and ultimately the whole community can be harmed by crime free rental housing and nuisance property ordinances that are proliferating among municipalities in Illinois and across the nation.  In a new report titled The Cost of Being “Crime Free”: Legal and Practical Consequences of Crime Free Rental Housing and Nuisance Property Ordinances, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law describes these various harms, and also the legal liability that can follow for municipalities when they pursue these problematic local laws.

Crime free rental housing ordinances and nuisance property ordinances are laws that seek to penalize tenants and landlords for police activity associated with rental properties.  Common elements of these ordinances include mandating that landlords perform criminal background screening of all prospective tenants, requiring landlords to use a “crime free lease” that makes criminal activity by any person connected to a tenant household a basis for eviction (even if the tenants themselves were not involved in or were victims of the crime), and forcing landlords to evict households that generate calls for police service.

These ordinances can actually end up undermining the public safety goal that they are ostensibly meant to serve.  The serious problems that can result from these ordinances include:

  • Causing the eviction of crime victims – especially victims of domestic or sexual violence – because of the crimes committed against them or their efforts to obtain police help;
  • Causing the eviction of persons with disabilities because of behaviors related to their disability;
  • Deterring tenants and landlords from reporting crimes or otherwise reaching out to the police when they need assistance;
  • Increasing homelessness and educational disruption for children;
  • Increasing the number of vacant properties in the community; an
  • Reducing the supply of affordable rental housing.

Municipalities that adopt and enforce these ordinances can end up being liable for housing discrimination, for interfering with efforts to get police help, and for denying due process, among other things.  In addition, municipalities can potentially lose access to certain federal funds that are conditioned on the municipality taking action to “affirmatively further fair housing” by avoiding practices that lead to housing discrimination.

While there are steps that municipalities can take to mitigate the most common problems created by these ordinances, these steps will not be able to completely avoid the harms that can result.  For example, domestic abuse often plays out in complex ways, and so even if an ordinance incorporates some protective language many cases involving victims are likely to fall through the cracks.  The only surefire way for a municipality to eliminate harmful consequences – and the risk of liability that can follow – is to not have such an ordinance in the first place, and to instead focus on utilizing other available tools to improve public safety and the quality of rental housing.


Workers Need Paid Sick Days and Fair Wages, Not Increased Hours for No Pay

Father with sick childToo often, workers have to choose between taking time off for illness and not receiving the wages they desperately need or showing up for their job despite their poor health or the poor health of someone they care for. For workers who support families, these decisions are even more difficult. In the absence of guaranteed leave for sickness or family obligations, workers fear losing their jobs or sacrificing their paycheck. Fortunately, there are viable solutions. Paid sick days help workers maintain a work-life balance, and an increase in the minimum wage would put more money in the pockets of low-income workers. We need to support policies that allow workers to take time off when they are sick and earn wages that keep their families out of poverty. But recent legislation that passed the U.S. House is a misguided attempt to give employers the ultimate deciding power and exploit low-wage workers.

Paid Sick Days

Paid sick days ensure workers are not forced to choose between their health and their paychecks. Hourly-paid employees in particular are made to feel that taking time off will jeopardize their jobs, and they often go to work despite their illness. This is called “presenteeism” and is estimated to cost our national economy $160 billion in lost productivity each year. Those who show up sick to work are often the same people who prepare our food or care for children—nearly three in four food service workers and child care workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, putting public health at risk (pg. 2-3). No one wants to work while seriously ill, but people who are supporting themselves or their families need every paid hour of work they can get. Unpaid time off has serious implications for the economic security of workers and their families. Just three and a half days of missed work is equivalent to an entire month’s groceries for the average family (pg. 1). Paid sick days clearly benefit workers, but they also help employers by reducing turnover, which can be very expensive. Five cities and one state have already introduced their own paid sick days laws with great success. San Francisco instituted a paid sick days law in 2007 and saw greater increase in job growth as well as business growth compared to the five neighboring counties. The movement in support of paid sick days laws is making progress in states across the country. Find out what is going on in your state. Additional information and resources are available here.

The Healthy Families Act

Now pending in Congress, the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S. 631) would set a national paid sick days standard, allowing workers to earn up to seven paid sick days each year. The Healthy Families Act would guarantee paid sick days for most workers, allowing workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid sick days each year. These sick days could be used to recover from illness, access preventative care, or care for a sick family member, which is a crucial problem for all working parents. The bill would give victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault the opportunity to use their paid sick days to recover or get much needed assistance.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act

The Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460) would help families prosper—nearly 28 percent of workers who would be affected by an increase are parents (pg. 8). Currently, a parent who works full-time, year-round at a job that pays federal minimum wage will not earn enough to be above the federal poverty line (pg. 3). We need to help families struggling to provide for children by paying workers wages they can actually live on. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 via three incremental increases of $0.95, and then index it to inflation. To put the present (and shockingly low) minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in perspective, if minimum wage had increased at the same rate of the average worker’s wages, it would be about $10.50 today (pg. 4). Leaving minimum wage workers behind will increase income inequality and keep families in a cycle of poverty. 

The Paycheck Fairness Act

Women workers and their families would also benefit from the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84), which would target discriminatory pay practices that contribute to the persistent wage gap between women and men. The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act to make investigation into employment discrimination against women more effective. Women earn, on average, $11,084 less annually than their male counterparts. This is especially hard on single mothers but also hurts two-parent families who rely on both parents’ wages.

The Working Families Flexibility Act

Unfortunately, the only proposal that has made progress in Congress so far is the Republican-backed Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (H.R. 1406), a bill with a misleading name that would actually undermine the Fair Labor Standards Act and force workers to spend more time away from their families by increasing overtime hours without paying workers overtime wages. The Working Families Flexibility Act, despite being bad news for all working families, passed the House on May 8th with a vote of 223-204 (with only three Democrats voting for the bill). The legislation allows employers the opportunity to give workers paid time off for overtime hours worked, instead of paying workers the overtime pay they have earned. Unfortunately, instead of making workers’ schedules more flexible, the bill will cause employers to increase workers’ overtime hours. Since they do not have to compensate workers for up to 13 months, the bill hands employers an interest-free loan for the amount of money they would have had to pay as time and a half wages. Because hourly-paid workers in today’s economy cannot say no to their employers without putting their jobs at risk, employees will be forced to choose comp time instead of pay. Provisions of the bill give employers all the power, including decisions as to when workers can take their comp time (this can be refused if it “unduly disrupts the operations of the employer”), and employers can even cash out comp time for wages if they choose to do so, leaving workers who had planned on having time off with no options. The bill provides no recourse for requests for time off that are unfairly delayed or denied and no protection for employees when businesses collapse or go bankrupt.

Take Action and Contact Members of Congress! 

Contact both of your U.S. senators and your U.S. representative and let them know that you support the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S. 631), the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84), and the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460) and would like to see all these bills move forward. In addition, let your senators know that you oppose the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (H.R. 1406). Hopefully, this bill will not move in the Senate; however you should still let your senators know that you oppose this legislation. For Illinois residents, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) is a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (also known as the HELP Committee), which all of these bills have to pass through, so contacting Senator Kirk is particularly important. Thanks for taking action!

For more information, please contact Wendy Pollack, director, Women’s Law and Policy Project, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Rally for Equal Pay on April 9th!

Equal Pay DayTuesday, April 9th is Equal Pay Day, the day that marks how far into the new year a woman must work on average to earn as much as a man earned the previous year. The average working woman earns just 77 cents to the average man’s dollar—it takes 99 days for women to catch up to what men earn in a year. Fair pay is important for all women, but the wage gap especially hurts those who are already at a disadvantage in the labor market, including African American and Hispanic women, as well as the millions of children and families who rely on women’s earnings.

Equal Pay Day brings attention to the persistent wage gap in the United States and encourages all of us to take action to end the continuing discrimination against women in the work force. It is projected that, at the current rate of progress, the wage gap for women will not close until the year 2057.

Over a 40-year, full-time, year-round career, a typical woman loses $443,360, or twelve years worth of work. The difference is even starker for women with lower levels of education; a woman who does not finish high school would lose $372,400 over a 40-year period, or seventeen years worth of work. The impact of the wage gap is felt even in retirement, with women receiving lower Social Security benefits and having lower retirement savings as a result of lower lifetime wages. The fact that a woman in 2013 can be disadvantaged throughout her entire life simply because of her gender or race is unacceptable. We need to take action and speak out to close the wage gap to ensure women everywhere are paid equally for their hard work.

Take Action!

The Equal Pay Day Rally in Chicago will bring together activists and concerned citizens to protest this inequality. Speakers will include Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown, ABA President Laurel Bellows, NOW President Terry O’Neill, and Women Employed Executive Director Anne Ladky.

Join us for an Equal Pay Day Rally on Tuesday, April 9th at noon at the Daley Center Plaza (located at Clark and Washington). The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is one of the proud sponsors of this event.

Learn More!

To learn how the earnings ratio and wage gap is calculated as well as why the pay gap is not just about women’s choices, check out the American Association of University Women’s publication, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap. In addition, because the wage gap varies significantly by state, the National Women’s Law Center provides an analysis for each state that includes the wage gap for women by race, education, and occupation as well as additional information such as unemployment rates. You can also estimate what the wage gap has cost you personally based on your current salary, occupation, age, and location using the WAGE (Women Are Getting Even) calculator.

For more information, contact Wendy Pollack, Director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center.

House Passes Inclusive Senate VAWA Reauthorization!

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with a strong bipartisan vote of 286-138. The bill will help improve VAWA programs that provide indispensable aid to survivors of sexual and domestic violence through shelters, legal aid, medical attention, and other resources. It will strengthen protection for all victims of violence, including Native American, immigrant, and LGBTQ victims. We urge you to thank your representative for voting for this important legislation or, if they did not vote for it, express your disappointment in their decision. You can see who voted for and against the bill here. You can find the representative for your district and their contact information here.

Violence against women continues to be a significant problem in our country. Nearly one in five women have been raped in their lifetime, and one in four women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner. VAWA supports local domestic violence programs that offer emergency shelter, transitional housing, supportive counseling, advocacy, and other services to more than 67,000 victims every day. With help from advocates, referrals, and the information they need, survivors are less likely to experience re-victimization and more likely to fare better in short- and long-term recovery.

VAWA programs, invaluable to the people who need them the most, are also fiscally responsible. The bipartisan VAWA Reauthorization bill (S. 47) uses the federal dollars put towards resources for survivors of sexual and domestic violence in a cost-effective way. The bill consolidates thirteen existing programs into four to avoid duplicative services and lessen administrative costs. Helping women (or men--VAWA does not discriminate) to regain independence and self-sufficiency is extremely important for survivors and for society. As Vice President Biden states, “This is not a Democratic or Republican issue--it’s an issue of justice and compassion.”

We are glad representatives in the House avoided potentially harmful amendments that would have weakened the Violence Against Women Act, and we eagerly await President Obama’s signature to make the reauthorization official. We thank you for all your support and for contacting your representatives--every call makes a difference!

Teen Dating Violence and the Subtle (and Not So Subtle) Blaming of Victims

Holding handsFebruary is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month—an excellent opportunity to educate ourselves not only about violence against women and girls in all its forms, including sexual assault, but also about the ways in which its victims are perceived and treated. Violence against women and girls predominately occurs in the context of an intimate partner relationship for both teens and adults; thus, we need to focus on how teens build and maintain relationships.

Sexual assaults are known to occur generally before the victim is 18 years old, therefore, young women and girls are at the greatest risk of this form of violence. And teens face many challenges in reporting sexual assault, especially if they engaged in risky behavior such as drinking alcohol at the time of the assault, or if the perpetrator claims they gave consent. By strengthening awareness of the link between dating violence and sexual assault, we can better help survivors and make coming forward easier for them.

Dating violence is a real concern for high school students. In 2011 in Illinois:

Dating violence can also consist in behavior control, such as birth-control sabotage, which can result in unwanted pregnancies. Women or teens who are pregnant while in an abusive relationship are at greater risk of miscarriage or preterm birth. People who experience dating violence have a greater likelihood of contracting an STD (sexually transmitted disease), often because victims fear the possible consequences of negotiating condom use. And cases of sexual assault are often products of dating violence and abusive relationships. In 2009, of reported rapes and sexual assaults against women, 

These statistics underreport the true level of intimate partner violence since victims often find accusing someone close to them of sexual assault difficult, victims fear getting a loved one in trouble, or victims anticipate that their story will be less credible if they have a current or previous relationship with the perpetrator.

While teens are more at risk than adults of experiencing dating violence or sexual assault, teens often have an even more difficult time being believed than adults. Besides being at a disadvantage if they seem to have been even slightly involved with the perpetrator, the perceived legitimacy of their story is greatly affected if they were using alcohol or drugs at the time of the assault. Use of either goes against the cultural stereotype of “real rape” and alters judgments about the people involved, usually unfairly penalizing the female. Studies have found that victims are held more accountable if they were drinking alcohol, yet perpetrators are judged less harshly if they consumed alcohol.

As for the justice system, prosecutors are less likely to file charges if the victim engaged in risk-taking behavior. Survivors who were under the influence of alcohol or drugs often have impaired memory and might omit details or give inconsistent accounts, and this greatly affects their perceived credibility. However, just because a report is not perfect in every detail does not mean that the sexual assault did not occur. Many factors, such as confusion due to trauma or disorganization, mixing up details with those of previous assaults, or a desire to cover up illegal behavior, may skew a victim’s story. Of course, race also plays a role in the decision to prosecute, with perpetrators whose victims are white are more likely to be charged.

In individual cases as well as in those that gain national attention, such as the case in Steubenville, Ohio, the New Yorker points out, “the public still, overwhelmingly, believes the accused at the expense of accusers.” The tendency to doubt survivors is often taken a step further and becomes blame. While blatant forms of victim blaming have become socially unacceptable, attitudes that subtly hold individuals accountable for their personal safety are still pervasive. Even as experts on sexual violence tell us that no one is responsible for being assaulted or abused by an intimate partner, some also imply that women can take steps to avoid being assaulted or abused. They suggest that people can avoid being “targets” of sexual violence by dressing or acting conservatively, or by avoiding potentially dangerous situations, such as bars or “bad” neighborhoods. These ideas are just as demeaning as the notion that teens or adult women in abusive relationships choose to be victimized; violence in any form is always unsought and unacceptable.

While there have been great strides in improving responses to and support for survivors of domestic or sexual violence over the years, criminal prosecution of sexual assault is still incredibly difficult, and the ratio of reports to arrests has declined since the mid-1970s to almost half. Today just 26 percent of forcible rape reports lead to an arrest. By comparison, the ratio of arrests to reports for all types of violent crimes remained steady from 1971 to 2008. This is not a reflection of a decrease in sexual violence but rather proof of problems within the justice system, especially with police investigations, where reports can be deemed unfounded simply because of lack of follow-up and not necessarily because of lack of evidence.

Advocates are working on legislative responses at both the federal and state level. In the U.S. Congress, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), S. 47, provides funding for programs and services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including for teen dating violence victims. VAWA successfully passed in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, February 12. We thank both Illinois senators, Senator Richard Durbin and Senator Mark Kirk for cosponsoring the bill. VAWA must now be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. Readers are encouraged to contact their representatives to urge passage of a bipartisan VAWA. To find out more about VAWA and how you can support it, visit

In the Illinois General Assembly, the Shriver Center and a coalition of service providers, students and their parents, educators, and other advocates are working on solutions to keep victims of domestic and sexual violence in school. Too often survivors of teen dating violence suffer negative consequences in school because school policies toward student survivors of domestic or sexual violence are either nonexistent or inadequate. Elementary and high school students typically continue to come into contact with their student perpetrators on school grounds or on their way to or from school—their safety and physical and mental well-being remain at risk even after the violence has occurred. Moreover, they may fall behind academically or drop out altogether when their absences are not excused, they experience breaches of confidentiality or outright discrimination by school personnel, or they are bullied by fellow students.

The Ensuring Success in School legislation that has just been introduced in both the Senate and the House of the Illinois General Assembly will help elementary and secondary students who are struggling with domestic and sexual violence, including teen dating violence, as well as students who are already parents or expectant parents. The legislation would ensure that these students receive the support they need to stay in school, stay safe, perform well academically, and graduate. The chief sponsor of the senate bill, SB 1702, is Sen. Kimberly Lightford; the chief sponsor of the house bill, HB 2213, is Rep. LaShawn Ford. For more information, or if you are in Illinois and you or some students you know have had positive or negative school experiences because they are or were parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence and would be interested in sharing those experiences, please contact Wendy Pollack.

Domestic Violence Is Murder

Domestic Violence Awareness month is an opportunity to learn about all forms of domestic violence—emotional, physical, sexual, and financial abuse and, in its extreme, murder. A recent report from the Violence Policy Center, “When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2010 Homicide Data,” analyzes U.S. Department of Justice data on female homicides. The data reveal that most female homicides are committed by men who are or were in an intimate relationship with the victim. 

While both men and women are the victims and the perpetrators of domestic violence, violence against women is a pervasive problem. Women are more likely to be victims of violence at the hands of their intimate partners than men, and the perpetrators are usually men. In 2010, in the United States there were 1,800 females murdered by men in single victim/single offender incidents. Among these incidents 94 percent of victims knew the offender, and more than 65 percent of female homicide victims were the wives or intimate partners of their killers. In Illinois, in the period between July 2010 and June 2011, there were 43 domestic violence-related murders, 24 of which took place in Cook County. The majority of victims in these incidents were wives, girlfriends, ex-wives, and ex-girlfriends of their killers.

The report by the Violence Policy Center looks specifically at the number of black women who were murdered in 2010 (see page 9). The black female homicide rate is almost 2.5 times higher than the rate for white women. Ninety-four percent of black women killed by males in single victim/single offender incidents knew their killer, and 64 percent of those victims were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends of the offender.

Among other marginalized groups, violence also appears in the LGBTQ community. A report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reveals a sharp increase in the number of domestic violence-related homicides in the LGBTQ community. In 2010 there were 6 killed, and by 2011 the number rose to 19 (see page 17). Among these incidents 42.1 percent were LGBTQ people of color (see page 7).

Domestic violence is not only a crime, but a major public health issue. Ending it requires both community education to prevent violence as well as policies and programs that allow victims to receive the services they need and the justice they deserve. The federal reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which includes crucial protections for Native American and immigrant women as well as survivors in the LGBTQ community, continues to stall in Congress. The time is now for Congress to act—do your part to make sure that happens. And learn more about Domestic Violence Awareness month and how you can get involved in the remaining days of October.

Raising the Minimum Wage Is a Women's Issue: Support Senate Bill 1565

Raising the Illinois minimum wage is a long overdue measure to increase the economic security of women and families. The mandated minimum wage in Illinois is only $8.25 an hour, which translates to around $16,000 a year for a full-time worker. For tipped workers such as food servers and nail salon technicians, minimum wage is even less—just $4.95 an hour. For low-wage working women and families, getting by on minimum wage is nearly impossible: a single mother with one preschooler and one school-age child in Illinois would need at least $50,000 per year in income in order to meet all basic needs such as rent, food, transportation, health, and child care without government support. 

Women make up just under half of the national workforce but account for roughly 60 percent of minimum-wage workers and nearly 73 percent of tipped workers. An inadequate minimum wage unduly affects women workers negatively because women are highly concentrated in low-wage industries such as food service, retail, and home health care, where their wages most often only meet or slightly exceed minimum wage. Despite progress in the workplace, women still earn less overall than men in all occupations—a wage gap that translates into thousands of unearned income and lost retirement savings over a lifetime. Women (and particularly single mothers and women of color) are at an increased risk of living in poverty; the percentage of women living in poverty reached an all-time high in the wake of the economic downturn. Raising the minimum wage would help low- and middle-wage earners by boosting the wage floor and increasing living standards for all. Women workers would disproportionately benefit, and this makes raising the minimum wage a pressing issue for women and families who are struggling.

Women Work in Most Low-Wage Jobs
Families are relying more and more on women’s wages, but the decline in the real value of the minimum wage over the past 40 years has pushed down all wages in sectors where women are concentrated. More than
1.5 million married couples with children relied exclusively on women’s earnings at some point in 2009, and 6.1 million single mothers were the sole breadwinners for their households in 2010. Yet in 2009 women accounted for more than half of all workers within several industry sectors, including financial activities, education and health services, and leisure and hospitality services, within which they usually have the lowest-paying positions. Women were substantially underrepresented in agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation, and utilities, where wages are most often well above the minimum wage.

Those female-dominated sectors are some of the fastest-growing sources of low-wage jobs: retail salespersons, registered nurses, home health and personal care aides, and food servers are all in occupations with the most job growth expected through 2020. Personal care aides are expected to grow by as much as 70 percent, and home health aides by 69 percent. Yet the median annual salary for women-dominated occupations is only somewhat above minimum-wage levels. This is astonishingly low for a family to thrive on: in 2010 the median annual salary for retail workers was just $20,670 and only $18,330 a year for food servers. Despite the projected growth of job opportunity, these jobs, without an increase in the minimum wage, will fail to pay enough for women to cover even the fundamental costs of living, let alone achieve economic security.

What’s more, domestic workers and home health aides, again occupations that are overwhelmingly female, are not guaranteed any minimum wage at all due to exemptions under state and federal laws. These women are professionals who do the work that makes all other work possible; they clean homes, tend to children, and care for society’s most vulnerable—people with disabilities, seniors, and the sick. Guaranteeing the minimum wage for these women workers and compensating them fairly would ensure that all hardworking women can live secure lives.

Women Earn Lower Wages
Women make less than men across all occupations, and this adversely affects their long-term security and retirement. The average working woman earns just 77 cents to her male counterpart’s dollar; over time this translates to
$10,849 less per year in female median earnings. For racial-minority women, the wage gap is even worse; African American women make only 62 cents and Latinas only 53 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. Tipped women workers suffer even greater pay disparities, particularly in food services. Women earn 83 cents less per hour than do men in the restaurant industry because women are more likely to be employed by fast-food restaurants than by fine-dining establishments.

Women Are Disproportionately Affected by Poverty
Poverty among women in the United States rose from
13.9 percent in 2009 to 14.5 percent in 2010—the highest rate in 17 years. Extreme poverty among women also rose from 5.9 percent in 2009 to 6.3 percent in 2010—meaning that 7.5 million women lived on incomes less than half of the federal poverty level. Poverty rates for all groups of women in 2010 were higher than the rates of their male counterparts, with the highest rates among the most vulnerable populations—female-headed families with children, women with disabilities, women 65 and older living alone, and racial-minority women. In Illinois 15 percent of women, compared with 12.6 percent of men, lived below the poverty line.

Raising the Minimum Wage Makes Sense
Raising the minimum wage would put more money into the pockets of low-wage women. Women make up over half of the workers who would have a raise in pay if the minimum wage were raised in Illinois, and racial and ethnic minorities, who make up a
third (33.1 percent) of the workforce, would make up more than two-fifths (41.3 percent) of affected workers. Most of those who would benefit have families who rely heavily on them economically. The increase in wages would allow women and families not only to be secure in the present but also to save for the future or for emergencies.

Raising the minimum wage would have a positive impact on the economy: low-income households would spend their money on necessities in their communities, and this in turn would create jobs. In an economy fueled by consumer spending, putting more money into the pockets of low-income individuals and families has a multiplier effect, research shows. There are no negative labor market effects, only positive ones, in raising the minimum wage, research also shows. Thus raising the minimum wage is a tool for economic growth.

Illinois lawmakers are working on passing Senate Bill 1565, which would gradually raise the minimum wage in Illinois from $8.25 to $10.65 an hour over four years, with increases tied to inflation thereafter. Beyond ensuring that the minimum wage would maintain its value over time, the bill would reach countless women who remain unprotected. The bill provides for fewer limitations of the definition of “employee” so as to extend protections to excluded groups such as home care workers; for equality in wages for tipped workers; and for undoing restrictive language pertaining to temporary or irregular employees. And the bill would allow for workers to recoup twice the amount of their unpaid wages should employers break the law. The increase to $10.65 over four years would add $3.8 billion to the finances of directly affected families, who would in turn spend their increased earnings in their communities and grow the economy. The benefits of a higher minimum wage in Illinois are evident; working women and families cannot afford to be left behind.

Help women and families earn sufficient wages by raising the minimum wage in Illinois. Visit the Raise Illinois campaign’s website and sign a petition or tell your personal story. Most important, call or visit your legislators and urge them to support S.B. 1565. Act now by clicking here!

For more information, contact Wendy Pollack, director, Women’s Law and Policy Project, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, at 312.368.3303.



Increasing Sexual Violence Is a Serious Public Health Issue

Photo by Laura4SmithThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have released the results of a 2010 comprehensive study on the prevalence of sexual violence in the U.S. The results of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reveal an increase in the rate of such incidents; over 50 million people each year are estimated to be victims of some form of sexual or intimate partner violence. Sexual and intimate partner violence has become an epidemic, making it a major public health issue that will require preventative measures at both the public policy and community level. The study looks at the characteristics of sexual and intimate partner violence as well as the long-lasting effects of violence on the mental and physical health of the victims.

Several key findings from the survey highlight the increase in rates of sexual violence victimization among men, as well as an epidemic of abusive relationships among adolescents and young adults. Teen dating violence, intimate partner violence among young adults, is becoming a more prominent issue as young people struggle to form healthy relationships. February has been designated Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month to shed light on the growing problem. 

The CDC uses expansive definitions of sexual and intimate partner violence that extend beyond rape to include other forms of sexual aggression, such as sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences. Included in their definition of Intimate Partner Violence is sexual violence generally as well as domestic violence, psychological aggression, stalking, and control of reproductive health. The rate of violence among intimate partners is explored separately, highlighting the complexity of interpersonal relationships as they relate to violence.

Women are more likely than men to be victimized by sexual and intimate partner violence. It is estimated that in 2012, 1.3 million women reported experiencing rape—53.2 million women will be raped in their lifetimethis translates to one in five women in the U.S. Among female rape victims, over half report that the perpetrator was an intimate partner, and the majority report experiencing rape in their teenage and early adult years—30% between the ages of 11 and 17 years and 37% between the ages of 18 and 24. As mentioned, these numbers reflect a growing problem among adolescents and young adults. Many of the dynamics of intimate partner violence among teens mirror abusive adult relationships, but because of the unique nature of adolescent relationships, addressing teen dating violence requires specific measures for prevention.

In regards to other forms of sexual violence the numbers remain high for female victims: one in six women are stalked, and one in four women report experiencing severe physical violence from a partner. In recent years we have learned more about stalking and how it relates to intimate partner violence—nearly three in four stalking victims know the perpetrator. The Internet has emerged as a new medium for violence; “cyberstalking” is on the rise as a serious form of intimidation and aggression. The popularity of social networking sites has made it easier for some perpetrators to harass victims; this type of online abuse is particularly prominent among young people. While “cyberstalking” may be virtual, the consequences for victims are very real. Those victimized by stalking were more likely to report both short- and long-term physical and mental trauma—post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injuries, asthma, diabetes, etc. January has been deemed Stalking Awareness Month, an effort to inform the public of this crime and hopefully prevent it.

Although the results show a high rate of victimization among women, significant numbers of men were also shown to be victims. The survey shows that 1.2 million or one in 71 men will experience rape in their lifetime—these numbers are significant when compared with previous data on sexual violence against men. Like female rape victims, over half of men reported previously knowing the perpetrator. Men are also being victimized in other ways: one in seven men reported experiencing severe physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner while one in nineteen men reported being stalked. These significant numbers warrant specific responses and interventions to address the needs of male victims.

Beyond gender, the study looks at the prevalence of sexual and intimate partner violence by race and ethnicity. Women of color in particular reported experiencing high rates of violence: one in five African-American and one in seven Latina women will experience rape in their lifetime. Among Native American women, over 26% were rape victims. Some of the highest numbers of sexual violence victimization were among those women who identify as multiracial, with over half (53.8%) experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Men of color experienced sexual violence at higher rates than white men; the highest percentages were among Latino men (26.2%) and men who identified as multiracial (31.6%).

Local statistics on sexual and intimate partner violence showed that in Illinois nearly 40% of the female population and 25% of the male population will experience some type of sexual violence in their lifetime.

Physical and mental health outcomes for victims of sexual and intimate partner violence are shown to be both long term and severe. Victims surveyed report physical outcomes such as high blood pressure, persistent headaches, asthma, and diabetes. Victims were also two to three times more likely to report having poor mental health.

In order to address widespread sexual and intimate partner violence, both prevention and intervention-based approaches are necessary. There needs to be a collective response from federal, state, and local governments to crimes of sexual violence where perpetrators are held accountable and victims are given options. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a change in the federal definition of rape, a change long overdue. The new, more accurate definition will allow for better reporting of rapes and a more appropriate response to victims seeking justice. The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), currently pending in Congress, would step further in the right direction to help victims of sexual violence. Improvements to VAWA that are contained in Senator Leahy’s bill, S.1925, would build the capacity of local communities to maintain critical victim services already in place as well as increase outreach to traditionally underserved populations. Learn more about VAWA reauthorization and the list of senators not yet signed on as co-sponsors. If your senator is not yet a co-sponsor (both senators from Illinois are), please contact your senators and ask them to sign on as a co-sponsor of S.1925, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

In addition to policy changes, there need to be changes in the way communities approach and understand sexualized violence. You can increase awareness of violence in your own communitydo your part to make your voice heard.



Americans Are Living Longer and Getting Poorer

Old WomanThe Social Security program has done wonders to alleviate poverty among the elderly. A report recently released by the National Institute of Health looks at one of America’s growing populations, people aged 90 years or older—who they are, where they live, and their economic security. This age group is expanding to be a larger proportion of both the elderly population (age 65 and over) and the total U.S. population. While the 90-and-over population is overwhelmingly white (88.1%), the report shows that this group’s poverty rates are consistent with statistics for the total U.S. population—that women and people of color are more likely to be living in poverty.

Of the entire population of 1.9 million Americans aged 90 and over, the poverty rate was 14.5% in the years 2006-08. Among those living in poverty, over 80% were women, a disproportionately higher share of the 90+ population. Because women in this age group outnumber men 3 to 1, this makes them a very significant population. Like women in general, poverty rates for the “oldest old” were higher for elderly people of color: nearly a fourth of African-Americans 90 and over were living in poverty, with similar rates for Hispanics. The economic security and life quality of the “oldest old” population is significant because they are growing as a group; the report estimated that the number of Americans 90 and over will quadruple by the mid-century. Illinois is among the top 10 states that have the highest population of people 90+ at 78,800.

Because so many of those in the 90-and-over group are at an increased risk to be poor, an effective economic safety net must be in place to prevent or alleviate poverty among this fragile population. While some politicians and others have advocated cutting programs such as Medicare and Social Security in order to reduce the federal deficit; these two vital programs are relied on by millions of older Americans, and especially those aged 90 and over. More than 98% of elderly 90 and over received Medicare coverage, and receipt of Social Security benefits is also nearly universal—for over 90% of the 90+ population Social Security made up almost half of their income. Major cuts to these programs would result in an increase to the already high number of those 90 and over living in poverty.

A recent report released by the U.S. Census Bureau on poverty in America suggests that poverty rates among the general population of elderly (those aged 65 and up) are rising as well. The report compares the “official” poverty rates and the new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) to determine who is considered poor or low-income. The SPM goes beyond the “official” poverty measurement (which is focused primarily on disposable income before taxes) and takes into account essential expenses such as variation in health care costs—a cost that is substantial for aging seniors. The report stated that in 2010 nearly 1 in 6 individuals 65 and older were living in poverty; this is almost double the rate measured by traditional poverty standards.

Many older or retirement-age Americans are worried about their economic situations in their later years. A report released by the AARP Public Policy Institute surveyed Americans 50 and over about their economic expectations for their old age. The majority of those surveyed lacked confidence in their economic situation as they continue to age. Nearly half of the participants expected their standard of living to decrease as they get older. The majority (57%) stated that they were not confident in their ability to finance a comfortable life through their retirement. As a greater proportion of our population reaches old age and the elderly live longer, there must be strong support of government programs and policies that address the needs of this growing population and do so much to alleviate poverty.

Defining Rape

What a difference a year makes. Last January the House Republicans and a handful of Democrats were pushing to redefine rape in order to further restrict access to abortions.  The Hyde Amendment, the federal law that restricts the use of government funds to pay for abortions, exempts pregnancies resulting from rape or incest (and pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman). The “Protect Life Act” (HR 358) and its companion bill the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (HR 3), each contained a provision that would have rewritten the Hyde Amendment to drastically limit the definitions of rape and incest—the rape exemption would have been limited to “forcible rape,” excluding such crimes as statutory rape and cases in which the woman was drugged, and incest would have been limited to cases in which the woman was a minor. (It should be noted that this legislation would restrict access to abortions in ways beyond redefining rape and incest, and the restrictions would not be limited to government-funded abortions.)

“Forcible rape” is not defined in the federal criminal code, nor was it defined in the legislation. A likely result would be that no pregnancies would be covered by this rape exemption. Under public pressure, the bills were amended, and they passed the House without redefining rape or incest. The bills are currently pending in the Senate. Narrowing the definition of rape, for whatever purpose, belittles the seriousness of the crime and the suffering of its victims.

In contrast, last Friday the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the definition of rape would be expanded to better reflect what rape is and who its victims are. The revisions to the Uniform Crime Report’s definition of rape will make reporting of the crime more accurate and provide a better understanding of its effects on victims. The definition is used by the FBI to collect information from local law enforcement agencies about reported rapes, and the new definition is more in sync with most state rape statutes.

The new definition of rape is: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

This definition includes victims and perpetrators of any gender, goes beyond vaginal penetration, and encompasses instances where the victim is incapable of giving consent, including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or because of age, and does not require physical resistance to demonstrate lack of consent. The old definition used by the Department of Justice was so inadequate that it did not include many of the alleged sex crimes of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, or rape facilitated by “date rape” drugs, which make victims weak and confused, or even causes them to pass out, so that they cannot refuse sex or defend themselves.

Rape is a serious crime that often has life-long consequences for its victims—negatively impacting their physical, mental, social, and economic well-being—and may include pregnancies that need to be terminated. The definition of rape should not be toyed with for political ends such as further restricting the constitutional right to an abortion. The new Department of Justice definition of rape recognizes conduct that will not result in pregnancy, and therefore, not add to the need for federally funded, or any, abortions. However, whether or not a rape results in a pregnancy should not limit how it is defined in law. The Justice Department’s expanded definition of rape is a positive step in recognizing all of its victims and the brutality of the crime, and in holding perpetrators accountable. Anything else belittles the crime and its victims.

Domestic Violence is Not a Crime in Topeka

In a horribly ironic turn of events, Topeka, Kansas, has decriminalized domestic violence in the middle of October, a month devoted to raising awareness about preventing and ending it. October has been domestic violence awareness month for over twenty years, a period of time during which exceptional progress has been made. Once thought of as a private matter, an accepted norm among many couples, domestic violence is now recognized as a crime. Unfortunately, rates of domestic violence in the U.S. remain extremely high, and survivors continue to face barriers to seeking protection and getting justice. The recent developments in Topeka have created yet another barrier for survivors to exercise their legal rights as they became political fodder in budgetary debates. This only highlights the continued critical need for increased awareness of domestic violence and its harmful effects on individuals and entire communities.

Domestic violence affects women of every racial, ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic background. One in four women experiences domestic violence in the United States, and more than three women on average are killed each day by an intimate partner. These women suffered in silence with few legal protections before the 1980s, when states began to criminalize domestic violence and establish protective orders. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that domestic violence was finally recognized as a federal crime. The passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) legally defined and federally criminalized domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. On October 11, however, Topeka, Kansas, took a huge step backwards when its city council voted to nullify their authority to prosecute misdemeanor cases of domestic violence. The whole mess began in September when, in response to budget shortfalls, the district attorney (DA) for the county in which Topeka is located announced that he would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanors and the duty would instead fall on the city. Topeka’s city council was angered by the increased responsibility without increased funding, and for five weeks the city and the county engaged in a standoff over who would be forced to provide legal protections for domestic violence victims. Then on October 11, Topeka decriminalized misdemeanor cases of domestic violence, the most common misdemeanor prosecutions in Topeka. The city hoped this would force the DA to begin prosecuting misdemeanors again, and it was right. Facing pressure from all sides, the DA announced that his office would begin prosecuting domestic violence cases again, but the city council has yet to repeal the ordinance decriminalizing domestic violence.

Both the DA and the Topeka City Council have assured the public that they take domestic violence very seriously, but their actions tell a different story. Budgets are reflections of a society’s values, and funding decisions are essentially priority decisions. The fact that Topeka was willing to risk the safety of survivors and their children to make a political point sends a message to the community that domestic violence is a low priority. In fact, domestic violence is such a low priority that the city and the county are unwilling to pay for its prosecution unless they are absolutely forced into it. Not only did Topeka’s decision diminish the importance of domestic violence and trivialize survivors’ experiences, it also placed real women in danger for the five weeks during which domestic violence was not a criminal offense. At least 30 domestic violence cases required action during those weeks. Instead, the perpetrators were released from prison with the understanding that what they did was not a crime.

Using survivors as pawns in political power struggles minimizes domestic violence and creates additional obstacles for survivors to gain the protections and services they need. Raising awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence and the effects it has on individuals and communities can help combat misunderstanding and ensure that prevention and survivor safety are top priorities. Awareness-raising campaigns exist around the country, educating people on the dynamics of domestic violence, prevention techniques, and the availability of resources for survivors.

The Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence has released a series of press statements detailing Topeka’s decision to decriminalize domestic violence. They are watching the situation carefully, and are poised to intervene if the DA again halts the prosecution of domestic violence. Visit their website to learn how to get involved. You can also help raise awareness simply by talking with your friends, family, and members of your community about domestic violence.

For more information on domestic violence, visit or If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233) or log on to

This blog post was coauthored by Hannah Green.


Enforcement of Protective Orders is a Human Right

The summer was a season of triumphs for women around the world, whose fundamental human rights were upheld, sometimes for the first time, by the international human rights community. In July, the United Nations (UN) released Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice, a report that focused on the legal barriers women and girls face around the world and how advocates are working to break down these barriers. In early August, the UN ruled on its first maternal death case, establishing that governments have an obligation to guarantee all women access to adequate and timely maternal health care. Then, in mid August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled on its first ever case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the United States. The decision established that governments have an obligation to enforce protective orders and that the failure to do so is a human rights violation. The progress around the world only highlights the work that must be done here in the United States to ensure that all women have equal rights and protections under the law and in practice, including the important right to the enforcement of protective orders.

Domestic Violence in the United States

The number of women in the U.S. who experience domestic violence is vast—it is truly a ubiquitous experience, affecting women of all ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual preferences. Indeed one in four women reports experiencing violence from a current or former partner or spouse. These women suffered in silence with little recognition from the legal world before the 1980s, when states began to criminalize domestic violence and establish protective orders. Finally, in 1994, the federal Violence Against Woman Act (VAWA) defined and federally criminalized domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Its passage signaled the United States’ refusal to continue silently to tolerate these crimes. Despite this progress, ignorance and prejudice continue to surround domestic violence survivors who face many barriers to justice and protection. Police can be slow to respond, believing domestic violence to be solely a private matter, and survivors’ credibility is often questioned in court. State and federal domestic violence acts have given women the opportunity to pursue legal protections, but without enforcement, legal protections in and of themselves are meaningless.

Jessica Lenahan’s Story

On June 23, 1999, Jessica Lenahan’s three children were discovered dead in the back seat of their father’s truck after he engaged the police in a shoot out that also resulted in his death. Ms. Lenahan’s estranged husband had abducted their children from outside her home, violating the restraining order she had obtained against him after he emotionally and physically abused her. Despite Ms. Lenahan’s many calls to the police station informing them of the restraining order and her husband’s actions, the police failed to even search for the children. Ms. Lenahan (formerly Ms. Gonzales) sued the township, claiming that her due process rights had been violated when the police failed to enforce her restraining order. Her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Township. The 2005 decision in Town of Castle Rock v. Jessica Gonzales established that survivors do not have a constitutional right to police enforcement of a restraining order because they do not have property rights to the order itself. In other words, the court determined that Ms. Lenahan did not have a right to due process, and thus did not look at whether or not due process was carried out. The decision, however, threatens the safety of domestic and sexual violence survivors around the country, who now have no legal recourse if their protective orders are not enforced.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

With legal options in the United States exhausted, Ms. Lenahan took her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Established in 1959, IACHR is tasked with promoting and protecting human rights in the Americas by upholding the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. International human rights law guarantees certain substantive positive rights that the U.S. Constitution does not, rendering the property right concerns that were the focal point of the U.S. Supreme Court case moot. Thus, Jessica Gonzales v. U.S.A., centered on the claim that the United States violated Ms. Lenahan and her children’s human rights to life, equal protection before the law, and the right to protection of the law from abusive attacks. In its decision in favor of Ms. Lenahan, IACHR established that governments do have an obligation to enforce protective orders and that the U.S. had violated Ms. Lenahan’s human rights in failing to enforce her restraining order.

Applying a Human Rights Framework Domestically

Included in IACHR’s decision were a number of recommendations for the United States to more adequately address domestic violence. These recommendations, echoed by the recently released report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against Women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Rashida Manjoo - Addendum - Mission to the United States of America, click “E”, page 27), include the creation of meaningful standards for the enforcement of protective orders. As a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States is obligated to comply with the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and IACHR rulings, but it shouldn’t have to be forced into protecting women from violence. Instead, the United States should lead rather than follow in the fight to end domestic violence. 

For more information on using a human rights framework domestically, read the September-October 2011 special issue of the Clearinghouse Review, “Human Rights: A New (and Old) Way to Secure Justice.”

This blog was coauthored by Hannah Green.


Sexual Violence and Title IX: Ensuring Success in School

Sexual violence is occurring in our nation’s high schools in staggeringly high numbers. Even though it remains an extremely underreported crime, the available data points to its prevalence in secondary schools. Almost 4,000 incidents of sexual battery and over 800 rapes and attempted rapes were reported in public high schools in the 2007-2008 school year. And by the time they graduate from high school over one in ten young women will be forced to have sexual intercourse. Schools are not only in a good position to prevent and respond to sexual violence, but they are also required to by law. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. All public and private elementary and secondary schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving any federal funds must comply with Title IX. On Monday, April 4, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a Dear Colleague letter to explain that the requirements of Title IX cover sexual violence and to remind schools of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence.

Students who are victims of sexual violence must overcome major challenges as they try to meet school obligations while coping with the emotional and physical effects of the violence they have endured. In order for students to succeed in school, they must feel safe and attend to their mental and physical well-being. The new guidance reinforces schools’ Title IX obligations to create safer schools for both individual students who are survivors of sexual violence and the entire student population, and suggests steps to make that happen.

School’s Responsibilities under Title IX
The letter provides clear explanations of each school’s responsibilities to respond to sexual violence and examples of how a school might fulfill these requirements. The next few paragraphs highlight some of the most important pieces of the guidance. Schools have always been required under Title IX to allow students to file complaints regarding sex-based discrimination. The new guidance clarifies that sexual harassment and sexual violence are included in the umbrella term “sex-based discrimination.” In addition, the guidance clarifies that students can file complaints of sexual violence regardless of where the incident took place. This acknowledges that students may feel uncomfortable in school as a result of an incident that happened off school grounds, especially if the perpetrator attends the same school or other students find out about the incident.

The letter emphasizes that schools must have clear steps for students to file complaints under Title IX and make this widely known throughout the school community. This is especially important in regards to sexual violence—students are already hesitant to report it and are unlikely to look for ways to get help from their schools. Schools have to investigate all claims of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and they have to do this separately from any simultaneous law enforcement investigations, as long as it does not compromise a criminal investigation. In other words, schools have to conduct their own investigations whether or not a student chooses to report the violence to law enforcement or pursue court proceedings, or if a court finds the alleged perpetrator not guilty. The legal standard for a Title IX violation is the preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e., it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred), a lower standard than needed to convict someone of a crime.

One of the most important pieces of the new guidance is its requirement that schools are responsible both for ending any ongoing violence and for preventing further harassment or violence from occurring. This shifts the emphasis from punishing the perpetrator to ensuring the victim’s safety. A survivor may need special accommodations to feel safe in school. This means providing a survivor with the option of receiving special accommodations whether or not the perpetrator is punished. The letter gives examples of actions schools can take to prevent further incidents, which range from changing class schedules to providing counseling services. The new guidance stresses that the burden of change should fall on the perpetrator rather than the survivor when possible to prevent re-victimization. 

Ensuring Success in School Initiative
The new guidance offers greater clarification of Title IX as it relates to the challenges students who are victims of sexual violence face in school and prioritizes the safety of students over all other considerations. The Shriver Center applauds the Office for Civil Rights on their renewed commitment to creating safe schools that allow all students to achieve success.

The Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center created the Ensuring Success in School Initiative in 2003 to promote the safe and successful completion of school among elementary and high school students who are parents, expectant parents, or victims of domestic or sexual violence. As part of this effort, the Ensuring Success in School Task Force was statutorily created, and in June 2010 the Task Force submitted its final findings and recommendations to the Illinois General Assembly. These recommendations are well complimented by the new guidance from the Office of Civil Rights, highlighting both the national nature of this problem and the responsibility of schools to respond promptly and effectively. Indeed many of the Task Force’s recommendations are included in the clarification of Title IX, making the adoption of the Ensuring Success in School Task Force recommendations even more salient.

For more information contact Wendy Pollack, director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center.

Hannah Green, domestic and sexual violence education and economic opportunity specialist at the Shriver Center, contributed to this article.


Ensuring Success in School Task Force Releases Final Report to the Illinois General Assembly

SchoolgirlsStudents who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence face unique challenges as they try to stay in school, stay safe while in school, and successfully complete their education. Failing to complete school can have life-long consequences, with high school dropouts reporting lower employment levels, lower lifetime earnings, and overall poorer health. Teen pregnancy and parenting and domestic and sexual violence are factors that contribute to the dropout and push-out crisis, but have thus far received insufficient attention from policymakers in Illinois.

Because of this, the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center got together a coalition of education, youth, and violence prevention advocates and students and their parents from across Illinois in 2003 to address these issues. The coalition drafted a bill to support elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence, which was introduced by Rep. Karen Yarbrough in 2005 and again in 2007. In 2007, the legislation was enacted into law as Public Act 95-0558. The law created the Ensuring Success in School Task Force, charged with examining and making recommendations regarding barriers to school attendance, successful school performance and graduation faced by students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence.

This summer, the Ensuring Success in School Task Force released its Final Report to the Illinois General Assembly. The report is the product of extensive research, consultation with experts, and public hearings held across the state, and it encompasses all of the task force’s findings and recommendations for how to support elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence.

Moving forward, the Shriver Center is convening a meeting of stakeholders to develop a strategic action plan based on the findings and recommendations of the report. If you are interested in participating in the first meeting, which has been set for Tuesday, September 7, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., or in future meetings, please contact Wendy Pollack at 312-368-3303. For those outside of Illinois who are interested in pursuing these issues in your area, also please contact Wendy.

For more background information on the Ensuring Success in School Initiative, contact Wendy, or see The Ensuring Success in School Act: Promoting School Success and Safety for Young People Who Are Parents, Expectant Parents, or Victims of Domestic or Sexual Violence. The full text of the legislation as originally introduced in 2005 is available at

Shana Heller-Ogden coauthored this article.


Adding Eviction to Injury: When Did It Become OK to Blame Crime Victims?

Congress and several states take actions to stop evictions of victims of violence

For women and children in this country, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Survivors of domestic violence (of which 90 to 95% are women), dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking living in rental housing are particularly vulnerable to homelessness because they are often threatened with eviction after an incident of violence. These evictions are frequently born out of property owners’ stereotypes about survivors of violence as individuals accountable for the acts of their abusers. Indeed, up until a few years ago, when victims of violence who lived in federally assisted low-income housing called the police to report intruders, being shot, or otherwise terrorized by their abusers, they would immediately receive an eviction notice.

In 2005, Congress adopted federal protections against evictions and denial of housing for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. The 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act prohibits evictions and admission denials of victims of violence who live certain types of federally supported low-income housing. The 2011 VAWA reauthorization should improve upon VAWA 2005 and expand it to cover other types of federal supported low-income housing. Any reauthorization must also extend those protections to survivors of sexual assault. 

On April 27, the Illinois Legislature passed H.B. 5523 and joined several other states, including Indiana, Colorado, Arkansas, Delaware, Texas and Virginia in protecting victims of violence from evictions based upon incidents of violence and/or their status as a victim of violence. Maryland has recently passed a similar bill. The governors of those states should sign the bills immediately.

However, property owners are not the only ones threatening survivors’ housing. A growing number of municipalities have adopted aggressive property nuisance codes or “crime-free” rental housing ordinances that obligate owners, under threat of losing their license to operate rental property, to evict all tenants when there is a crime or multiple police calls for assistance. To limit a survivor’s access to police assistance under threat of homelessness or to blame them for the crime committed against them likely violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution and Federal Fair Housing Act. While we support the idea of improving the quality and safety of rental housing, municipal actions cannot interfere with a survivor’s safety or hold them accountable for a perpetrator’s actions. Municipalities should amend these ordinances to eliminate these harmful and likely illegal provisions.   

Sex Education: The Debate Continues

New research and new legislation on abstinence-only sex education has brought the ongoing debate between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education to a new pitch.

A little context: abstinence-only sex education received small amounts of funding in the 1980s, but got its real start during the Clinton administration with the 1996 welfare reform law. As part of that law, Title V of the Social Security Act was amended. This amendment established funding for abstinence-only programs and outlined the eight requirements for a program to receive funding, including the promotion of abstinence until marriage, and teaching that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and that sex before marriage would likely be psychologically and physically harmful (the law is codified at 42 U.S.C. § 710). Every state, with the exception of California, applied for funds, and loosely interpreted the eight requirements, which largely went unenforced.

Under President George W. Bush there was a significant increase in federal funding for abstinence-only programs, including Title V and the Community-Based Abstinence Education program. The federal funding combined with state matching funds catapulted spending on abstinence-only programs to over $200 million per year by 2005 (up from $9 million in 1997). The Bush administration also began more stringently enforcing the requirements for funding, and states, wary of the restrictions on teaching about birth control and safe sex, slowly began to drop their federal funding requests.

Meanwhile, study after study showed abstinence-only sex education to be not only ineffective, but sometimes even harmful to adolescents. In 1997, teen pregnancy rates in the US went up for the first time in 15 years, along with teen STD rates. The Obama administration finally ended funding for abstinence-only sex education, allowing Title V to expire, and instead redirected funds toward comprehensive, evidence-based programs.

Now, in 2010, the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has released a study claiming to have at last found an abstinence-only program that works. The study, “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months,” raised new hopes for proponents of abstinence-only education, but the kind of abstinence-only program used in this study is vastly different from the Bush-era programs – so much that it would not have qualified for federal funding. The program in this study was neither moralistic nor disparaging toward sex or contraception, and only advocated abstinence until “a time later in life,” not until marriage. 

These changes are certainly steps in the right direction, but withholding critical information from teens on safe sex still raises serious questions, especially given the fact that 25 percent of the 12 year-olds who participated in this study were self-reportedly already having sex. For more information about this study and its findings, see our latest WomanView

Much to the dismay of teen pregnancy prevention advocates, Bush-era abstinence-only programs have not gone away – far from it, actually. Renewed funding for Title V, to the tune of $50 million a year over the next five years (plus state matching funds, up to an additional $38 million per year), was part of the health care reform bill, signed into law last week. 

Preventing teen pregnancy is, of course, important. The Shriver Center supports medically accurate, comprehensive sex education that is appropriate to students’ age, developmental level, and cultural background, not more failed abstinence-only programs. Through our Ensuring Success in School Initiative, we also support teens who are already parents or expectant parents so that they can stay in school, graduate, get good jobs, and raise healthy families.

For more information on sex education policy or on our efforts to support teens who are parents or expectant parents, please contact the Women’s Law and Policy Project.

WomanView is a publication of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center, focusing on legal and policy issues affecting low-income women and girls. You can subscribe to WomanView here

Shana Heller-Ogden coauthored this blog post.

A Victory in Illinois: Making the Case for Inclusion of Workplace Protections in the Federal Violence Against Women Act

The effects of domestic and sexual violence are not checked at the door when a survivor of violence enters her place of employment. Oftentimes individuals who experience domestic or sexual violence report missing work due to the violence in their lives, enduring harassment by the abuser at work, suffering health problems that affect job performance, or losing employment due to the violence. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that, during a 12-month period, more than half of stalking victims lost five or more days of work, and about 130,000 stalking victims reported that they were fired or asked to leave their jobs because of the stalking. Yet, according to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 70 percent of U.S. workplaces have no formal program or policy that tackles workplace violence.

It’s time for the federal government to act, following Illinois’ example, where late last month the Illinois General Assembly passed an important piece of legislation that is a notable victory for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, their families, and advocates. The Illinois Senate voted unanimously to concur with House Amendments No. 1 and No. 2 on Senate Bill 1770, an amendment to the Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA). Originally enacted in 2003 with then–State Senator Barack Obama as principal sponsor, VESSA provides unpaid, job-guaranteed leave and nondiscrimination protections for eligible employees who are survivors of domestic or sexual violence or who have a family or household member who is a survivor of domestic or sexual violence.

Since its enactment in 2003, VESSA has provided significant benefits and workplace protections for Illinois employees. VESSA allows a covered employee to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off from work to deal with the violence in her lives without losing her job during a 12-month period. VESSA also prohibits an employer from discriminating, harassing, or retaliating against an employee who is exercising her rights under this law.

Once signed into law, the amendment will expand VESSA to cover more employees in the private sector by decreasing the private employer threshold number of employees from 50 or more to 15 or more. The amendment adds language providing that an employee who works for an employer with at least 15 but not more than 49 employees may take up to 8 work weeks (rather than 12) of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave to deal with domestic or sexual violence during a 12-month period.

VESSA has proven to be a lifeline for employees coping with domestic or sexual violence. While VESSA allows for several weeks of leave, most employees who take leave take significantly less. And, of the 107 complaints that have been filed since enactment, most VESSA claims notably allege discrimination by the employer.

With the recession being a perpetual reminder of the crucial nature of job preservation and economic stability, the passage of S.B. 1770 is a surefire victory that will help more survivors of domestic and sexual violence maintain their employment and economic stability as they strive to remain safe and ultimately escape a violent situation. Action on the federal level is more pressing than ever.