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Welfare Women, Violent Men

AS members of the House hobnob in their home districts this week, having cast their votes on welfare reform, we can expect much celebratory talk about how the United States is on the road to ending welfare as we know it.

The trouble is, unless the Senate votes otherwise this spring, many women who will be dropped from the welfare rolls can expect to encounter a formidable obstacle on the road to the world of work: Many of the men who move in and out of the lives of women who receive welfare checks to support themselves and their children do not want their partners to become employed and independent.

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In fact, many women who rely on welfare benefits to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their children report that the men who are unable to support them or their children sabotage their efforts to move from welfare to work. Indeed, these men frequently resort to violence to prevent women from completing employment-training programs or from entering the work force.

A recent survey of 12 work programs serving welfare mothers across the US revealed that over half of all participants are being abused at home. The Women's Employment Network in Kansas City, Mo., reports that 8 in 10 of its clients who are trying to go from welfare to work suffer from domestic violence.

Domestic violence is also a prime reason why women get on welfare in the first place. Preliminary research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., on a sample of Chicago welfare recipients found that nearly half mentioned abusive relationships as a factor in their need for welfare. Officials at some battered-women's shelters report from 60 percent to 95 percent of the women they help spend some time on welfare as they struggle to recover from years of abuse.

The stories are as consistent as they are heartbreaking. The night before an entrance exam or a job interview, men will show up to engage their partners in night-long quarrels, leaving the women sleep-deprived and unable to perform well. Or they will promise to provide critical child care or transportation, only to disappear or get high when needed. Others literally hide women's clothing and winter coats, tear up their completed applications or assignments, or deliberately batter them on the face, hoping that the women will be too injured or ashamed to expose their bruises and black eyes to the world.

Will abusers, because of a vote in Washington, suddenly see the error of their ways and graciously permit women to work? Or will welfare reform make young teens without skills or prospects become more likely to fall prey to crime and drugs or to older men who promise to take care of them? Or, as anecdotal evidence already suggests, will fears that working women will either meet new men or refuse to turn over hard-earned paychecks cause domestic violence to escalate?

It is clear that proposed changes in federal and state welfare policies have the potential of increasing the dependence of uneducated young women and their children on violent men and of increasing the incidence of domestic violence.

Perhaps hearing from constituents who've been glued to the O.J. Simpson trial for months now will prompt thoughtful senators in both parties to have the courage to slow down ''reform'' to examine this question. Otherwise, many young women who believed the guys who promised them the sun, moon, and stars -- but who suffered as these men battered their dreams and bodies instead -- will find themselves with nowhere to turn but 911. And we all know how much that helped Nicole Brown Simpson.

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