Category Archives: State Government

Supreme Court Decision Protects Against Housing Discrimination

Last week, the Supreme Court handed down a number of critical decisions that impacted millions of Americans. While the nation is still buzzing about their decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, another ruling that plays a major role in the fight against housing discrimination received less attention. In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., the Supreme Court confirmed that housing policies that have a “disparate impact” based on race, gender, religion, national origin, disability or family status are prohibited under the Fair Housing Act. This applies to policies that may not explicitly intend to discriminate against certain groups but still create a pattern of discrimination. The disparate impact standard of the Fair Housing Act has been a critical tool in dismantling institutional racial discrimination in housing and lending, and although less well known, it has been a valuable asset for survivors of domestic violence.

The Fair Housing Act was first used to prevent domestic violence housing discrimination in the case of Alvera v. the CBM Group, Inc. After Tiffani Alvera was attacked by her husband and hospitalized, she gave a copy of her protection order to the landlord to have her husband evicted from their shared residence. The landlord responded by ordering both her and her husband to vacate the property within 24 hours. She was told that a member of her household “inflicted personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants,” which was grounds to terminate her lease. The fact that Alvera herself was the victim of this violence did not deter her landlord from ordering her out. When she filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act, the court agreed that although the policy was not directly intended to discriminate against domestic violence victims, it still had a disparate impact and amounted to gender discrimination.

There are many ways landlords can discriminate against tenants currently experiencing or with a history of domestic violence. They may refuse to rent to applicants with a history of DV. For current tenants, they may fail to renew their lease, evict them or raise their rent as punishment for their abusers’ actions. Some localities also have nuisance ordinances which heavily fine or punish landlords who have the police called to their buildings too many times. This puts pressure on landlords to discourage tenants from seeking help or to evict them if they call the police multiple times. In one case, Lakisha Briggs was warned, after calling the police for violence committed by her ex-boyfriend, that she would be evicted from her apartment if she kept calling. She endured two more brutal attacks from her ex-boyfriend out of too much fear to report it, but was evicted anyway when other residents called the police. Although this case was settled in court and the ordinance repealed, these types of policies are still popular across the country. One study of Milwaukee found that in a single year, 157 nuisance citations were given to landlords for domestic violence incidents, disproportionately directed at women from low-income, mostly black neighborhoods. In the majority of these cases the landlord responded with immediate eviction.

Currently, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have statutes protecting against some form of domestic violence housing discrimination. However, many of these statutes are narrow and do not cover the full range of possible discrimination, leaving many victims unprotected by state policies. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decision ensures the Fair Housing Act can continue to offer relief for anyone affected by discriminatory housing policies and prevent domestic violence victims from having to make the impossible choice between keeping their housing and protecting their safety.

Source: ICPH, Source: Legal Momentum, State Law Guide: Housing Protections for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, June 2013.

 

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The Heavy Cost of Revenge Porn

Last week, the fight against revenge porn had several major victories, as Vermont, Oregon and Texas all passed laws criminalizing revenge porn. Google also announced that it would allow victims of revenge porn to request that their images be removed from its search results. Revenge porn is the practice of publicly sharing nude or sexual photos and videos taken in the context of an intimate relationship in order to seek revenge on a former partner. These photos can be uploaded to a website with a global audience within minutes, but the repercussions for the victim can last a lifetime. In 59% of cases, these images are posted alongside private information such as full names, links to social media profiles, phone numbers and home addresses, leaving the subject open to a wide range of harassment, discrimination, stalking and violence.

Revenge porn victims suffer from severe consequences after having their private photos shared online.  One survey found that 93% of revenge porn victims reported significant emotional distress, and many experienced psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. Victims can also experience major threats to their economic security. Their photos are widely accessible online and if co-workers or employers find the images, it may put their career in jeopardy. Many victims report losing their job after their pictures were discovered and some offenders will even send the photos directly to victims’ workplaces in an attempt to get them fired. These pictures may also complicate the search for a new job, since 80% of employers conduct web searches on potential new hires before an interview. A photo posted with identifying information may come up in search results, influencing employers’ hiring decisions. Some victims must also take drastic and costly steps to protect their safety, including changing their names, leaving their jobs or schools, or moving to new residences to escape pervasive harassment.

In states without revenge porn laws, victims may face staggering financial hurdles in their efforts to have their photos removed from the internet. Many victims have to rely on civil suits to attempt to receive compensation, and must hire a lawyer for a lengthy legal battle that may draw even more attention to the photos. Others may claim that they have a copyright over nude images that they took themselves, and send takedown notices to each website hosting their images, which may also require a lawyer to draft an effective letter. The cost of these legal services may be prohibitive for many victims. Even for those who can afford an attorney, winning a single suit or having one website take their photo down is not the end of the battle. Photos can be continually shared and reposted, making legal efforts to locate and remove the photos a process that can last years. This can exhaust a victim’s resources without any guarantee that the photos and the resulting harm and stigma will be gone for good.

Fortunately, the national climate around revenge porn is changing. States are rapidly implementing revenge porn laws that give victims a greater opportunity for justice and discourage perpetration, and sharing revenge porn is now a criminal offense in 23 states. Google’s new policy may also have a powerful impact in freeing victims from the fear that their images will pop up in web searches by employers, family, friends or romantic partners, particularly if other major search engines follow Google’s example. While the costs and consequences of revenge porn can be high, these changes provide hope that soon victims across the country will have the protections they need to take back control of their lives and keep revenge porn from damaging their happiness, safety and economic security.

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The Fight for LGBTQ Economic Equality

There is a lot to celebrate this LGBT Pride Month. The nation is waiting to hear the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether or not same-sex marriage is protected under the Constitution, which could potentially strike a decisive victory for equal rights and extend marriage equality across the US. Regardless of the outcome, the fight for marriage equality has already achieved significant wins at the state level: 37 states and DC have marriage equality laws, protecting 71% of the population. Considering that no state allowed marriage equality prior to 2004, this rapid progress is a testament to the power of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Marriage can provide significant financial benefits to same-sex couples by giving them access to each other’s social security benefits, health insurance and pensions, and by allowing them to make joint decisions on financial planning and tax preparation.

However, there is still work to be done to ensure equality for LGBTQ individuals in areas such as employment, access to services, and judicial and police protections. Currently, only nineteen states and DC ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment (see map below), housing and public accommodations, with an additional three states banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. This leaves more than half the country without anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals. This discrimination can lead to harsh economic realities for LGBTQ communities. LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately likely to live in poverty: single LGBTQ adults with children are three times as likely to be near the poverty line as non-LGBTQ singles with children, while LGBTQ couples with children are twice as likely to be near the poverty line as their non-LGBTQ counterparts.  Around 15% of transgender individuals earn less than $10,000 per year, compared to only 4% of the general population.

Source: Movement Advancement Project

These economic struggles complicate the experience of domestic violence within LGBTQ relationships. If survivors are reliant on an abusive partner for shelter, transportation, food and other needs, it may be extremely challenging for them to leave and start over independently. In 74% of cases, economic insecurity contributes to a survivor staying with an abuser for longer. Studies have found that the rates of domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships are the same or higher than for non-LGBTQ couples. The National Violence Against Women survey found that 21.5% of men and 35.4% of women living with same-sex partners experienced physical domestic violence. This was higher than the rates for cohabitating opposite-sex partners, at 7.1% for men and 20.4% for women. Transgender survivors are almost twice as likely to experience physical violence in an IPV situation as other LGBTQ survivors.

In addition, LGBTQ survivors may face unique barriers towards accessing essential domestic violence services.  LGBTQ individuals may be wary of calling the police due to fear of discrimination or the possibility of dual arrest, in which both parties are arrested instead of a primary aggressor. A 2007 study found that dual arrest occurred in 27% of same-sex DV cases, compared to 0.8% of cases with a male offender and female victim, and 3% of cases with a female offender and male victim. In 2013, 20% of LGBTQ survivors were turned away from domestic violence shelters and 41.7% were denied access to a protection order.  These resources are particularly critical for economically insecure survivors, who may have few other options to protect themselves from abuse.

Clearly, while the LGBTQ community has made great progress, the fight for equality does not end there.  Policies should protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. There also needs to be an attitude shift towards LGBTQ survivors to recognize that they need the same protections from police, the courts and service providers. Wider Opportunities for Women offers more information about the unique relationship between violence and economic security for LGBTQ survivors as well as recommendations for how we can continue to make improvements.

 

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To Be Savored: A Victory for New Jersey Seniors

When I heard that Governor Chris Christie had signed the New Jersey Elder Index bill, I was thrilled. A long-term collaboration between Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging had finally culminated in enactment of a bill (A3504/S2231) which will really make a difference for New Jersey seniors!

The new law, sponsored in the state legislature by Assemblyman Joseph Lagana and Senator Loretta Weinberg, gives NJ’s Department of Human Services (DHS) a powerful tool for assessing and addressing the needs of seniors in the state—the New Jersey Elder Economic Security Standard Index (NJ Elder Index). The NJ Elder Index is based on WOW’s Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index), which was developed by WOW in association with UMass Boston Gerontology Institute.  The Elder Index is a measure of what it costs older adults to make ends meet—at a very basic level—in every state and county across the nation.

In New Jersey, many Area Agencies on Aging and other nonprofits have been using the NJ Elder Index for years to understand and plan around the economic conditions of those they serve, but this legislation takes it to a whole new level. The state itself will update the NJ Elder Index annually, and will consult it in making recommendations for program funding, suggesting public benefit eligibility levels, benchmarking program impacts, designing public outreach, and evaluating case management.  On top of that, DHS will calculate long-term care costs for NJ seniors—a potentially very large expense for which older adults are often unprepared. Armed with this data and related research, DHS can create a more meaningful and effective response to senior needs now and in the future.

The victory is sweet for the citizens of New Jersey, specifically its seniors, and for WOW and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA). NJFA’s Executive Director, Grace Egan and Program Manager, Melissa Chalker, have both spent many hours in briefings, presentations, and personal conversations with fellow nonprofit staff, county and state policymakers, and anyone else who would listen about the economic insecurity faced by NJ elders. A strong voice for policies and programs that help fill the gaps for struggling seniors, NJFA has constantly been in the trenches fighting to preserve and expand energy, food and housing assistance for those struggling to get by.

And so we pause to celebrate the moment, salute our partners, and acknowledge, with appreciation, the foresight of NJ’s Governor and legislators who have just taken a step forward for elder economic security. Hats off to all!

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America Saves – Or Not

The end of America Saves Week (February 23-28, 2015) should not be an excuse to suspend our efforts to (1) save, (2) spread the word on the importance of saving for retirement and other purposes, and (3) continue working to remove barriers to saving. Low and inadequate retirement savings and/or lack of access to 401(k)s, pensions, and other savings platforms result in increased dependence and pressure on our Social Security system. This is a crucial issue for all Americans, but especially for women. WOW’s research shows that half of all women age 65 and older living independently in the community experience economic insecurity—with much higher percentages for women of color.

There have been efforts on both the national and state levels to address barriers to saving for retirement—with uneven results. For example:

  • In response to data showing that “one third of people (36%) in the U.S. have nothing saved for retirement”, and “14% of people ages 65 and older have no retirement savings”, the US Department of Treasury launched the myRA savings program in December, 2014 –a no fee, no hidden cost account–intended to provide a “simple, safe, and affordable retirement savings option” for working Americans.
  • In February 2015, President Obama announced that he had asked the Department of Labor to modernize its rules under ERISA to ensure that investment advisers do not offer financial advice tainted by  conflict of interest, and that they put  hardworking Americans’ interests first. It is estimated that $17 billion is lost each year due to conflicted investment advice.
  • In January 2014, a bill was introduced in West Virginia’s legislature to establish the West Virginia Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts (VERA) Program, which would expand access to retirement plans to all employees and employers who wish to participate. According to H. B. 4375  nearly fifty percent of West Virginia workers have no access to employer-based retirement plans. However, despite vigorous advocacy by West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy (WVCBP) and other groups, opposition led by the insurance industry prevailed and the legislation died.
  • The Minnesota’s Women’s Economic Security Agenda (WESA), a multi-issue campaign mounted by the Minnesota Women’s Consortium—another WOW partner—and other advocates, resulted in legislation that included creation of a Minnesota Secure Choice Retirement Savings Plan.  In February 2014, HF 2419 and its companion Senate bill, SF 2078, were introduced to establish such a plan; in the end, however, only a study of the issue was commissioned.
  • In January 2015, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill creating the Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program Act. The Act is intended to promote “greater retirement savings for private-sector employees in a convenient, low-cost, and portable manner.”
  • In March 2012, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts signed a bill into law that provides retirement options for nonprofit organizations. This new law’s effective date was January 1, 2014 and applies to the “not-for-profit employer “who employs “not more than 20 persons…”

Having access to retirement savings plans/programs during one’s working years, and being assured of non-biased investment advice by financial advisors can make a big impact on economic security in retirement.  WOW commends and joins with those at the state and national levels who are working to bring these reforms about.

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Paul Ryan’s Safety Net Plan Creates, Not Combats Poverty

Last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled his proposal for an anti-poverty plan at the American Enterprise Institute. Shifting federal assistance towards a block grant he calls the “Opportunity Grant,” Ryan proposed to give the states responsibility to decide how they would distribute funding for eleven safety net programs. The Opportunity Grant masquerades as a plan to uplift low-class and working Americans, while ultimately pulling more people down into cyclical poverty. Historically, block grants have been ineffective and poverty is still a painful reality for many working families, which this plan fails to acknowledge. With no resources to even effectively implement such a program, the Opportunity Grant is destined to fail.

The main issue with Ryan’s proposal is the move away from adjustable assistance programs towards lumping assistance programs into state-distributed packages. To start, block grants are not responsive to economic shifts because they are distributed in fixed annual appropriations. Moreover, block grants have been historically problematic, which Ryan conveniently overlooks. When funds are administered at the state level they can easily be relocated to fill other state budgetary holes. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that states have used billions of dollars of welfare block grants on unrelated programs – in 2011 only 29% of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds were being used towards their intended purposes.

Additionally, block grant programs tend to be chipped away at on the federal level by legislators who considered the money to be “flexible” or superfluous. A prime example of this is the Social Services Block Grant, which has lost 77% of its funding since its establishment and would be entirely cut under the Ryan plan. Ironically, this is a program that would be necessary to sustain the kind of case management Ryan wants to create under his plan. Ryan already wants to make significant cuts to programs like SNAP and Medicaid, so formatting the programs into a lump sum package will make these funds even more vulnerable to further cuts and misallocation.

Ryan’s plan is overly focused on getting people into jobs and is not concerned enough with fixing bad jobs that don’t pay well. He also overlooks other assistance that working individuals and families need to get by, like paid sick and paid family leave, both of which are not required by federal labor laws. In 2014, a full-time worker making the $7.25 federal minimum wage earns approximately $15,080 annually, only 71% of the poverty level for a family of three. This translates to approximately 8.9 million Americans working full-time minimum wage jobs who live below the poverty line. It’s clear that jobs are simply not the end-all to climbing out of poverty. In falsely considering poverty as an issue primarily for people who choose not to work, Ryan’s plan falls short of encompassing the full spectrum of poverty.

Ryan’s proposal also includes lowering the income limit for assistance cutoffs, increasing the eligibility gap and accentuating the poverty cycle even more. These eligibility “cliffs” cut people off from food and housing programs before they can afford them on their own, keeping individuals and families in limbo between self-sufficiency and assistance programs. As the name suggests, eligibility cliffs will drop recipients from help before they even get out of poverty instead of gradually reducing benefits. In fact, in some states like Colorado, simply earning one more dollar an hour could make a low-income individual lose SNAP benefits or experience drastic cuts to their childcare subsidies. Smoothing out these cliffs ensures that recipients continue to have some stability while they become more economically independent. 

Finally, a plan like the Opportunity Grant proposal is financially unfeasible because it calls for cutting funding for some programs while not adding funding for new initiatives, like individualized, paid case managers. More paperwork and bureaucracy will be necessary if Ryan is committed to such case management, paradoxically creating here what he vowed his plan would cut elsewhere. Because Ryan does not propose any increases in program funding, paying for case management staff, training and facilities will only siphon already-limited funds from the block grant. Ryan’s “deficit neutral” plan allots no more money to struggling Americans while simultaneously making it more difficult for those Americans to receive assistance at all.

The Ryan plan is riddled with inconsistencies, contradictory proposals and methods that have proven ineffective since the advent of the welfare safety net. Low-income Americans and the unemployed need assistance that will not disappear at arbitrary cutoff points and that will encompass childcare, food assistance, housing and job training. An anti-poverty plan must go further to address the real issues facing Americans today, not only reinforcing the welfare system but also raising the minimum wage, expanding worker’s protections and extending unemployment insurance. Because it overlooks the facts about poverty and what workers need to get out of it, the Opportunity Grant program will revoke assistance to those who need it most and worsen the problem of poverty in the US.

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Wage Theft and “Ban the Box” Victories for Workers in DC

Last week, labor activists in Washington, DC, saw months of hard work pay off as the DC City Council unanimously passed the strongest laws in the country on wage theft and employment discrimination against people with criminal backgrounds. These laws are crucial for individuals and families to achieve economic justice. The wage theft legislation will overwhelmingly affect low-wage workers, while the “ban the box” legislation holds particular value for survivors of domestic violence attempting to reenter the workplace with a criminal background.

Wage theft is all too common in the United States. It occurs when employers fail to pay their workers their promised wages, delay payment on wages or don’t pay them at all. This phenomenon adds up to an estimated $35 billion withheld from millions of workers each year. Over three-fourths of the nation’s population lives paycheck to paycheck, making failure to pay or delayed payment a serious problem for the economic security of millions. DC’s Wage Theft Prevention Act will restructure wage and hour enforcement by increasing penalties for employers who engage in wage theft of all kinds and creating formal hearings for these incidents.

Low-income workers are especially susceptible to paycheck exploitation by employers: in a study by the National Employment Law Project, 26% of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior to when they were surveyed. Women hold approximately two-thirds of low-wage jobs across the nation. In the wake of the recession, sixty percent of women’s job gains during the recovery have been in the ten largest low-wage jobs, which pay less than $10.10 per hour. WOW’s BEST indicators suggest that an adult worker with no children in DC needs to earn at least $18.36 an hour to be economically secure, but DC’s $9.50 per hour minimum wage does not even come close to this.

A poignant example of such exploitation lies in the restaurant industry, where 71 percent of servers are female and are nearly three times more likely to be paid under the poverty line. In most states, these workers can legally be paid $2.13 an hour. Workers in tipped positions like servers are especially vulnerable to wage theft because, though employers are supposed to make up the difference between what their tipped workers make in hourly tips and the state’s minimum wage, over 12% of tipped workers faced theft of tips by their employer. DC’s new anti-wage theft law will raise the stakes for restaurant employers attempting to engage in wage theft, hopefully deterring them from paying unjust wages or no wage at all.

The Fair Criminal Records Screening Act, commonly known as a “ban the box” law, will prohibit employers from asking questions about a person’s criminal record on employment applications, including the checkbox that asks if an applicant has been arrested or convicted for a crime. DC joins 65 other jurisdictions across the country that have implemented “ban the box” measures, and expands on the Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act of 2010 by prohibiting private as well as public employers from discrimination based on criminal or arrest records. Seeing as 10% of DC residents, or 60,000 people, possess a criminal record and that people with a criminal history consistently have high unemployment rates, this law opens doors for millions of potential workers to reenter the workforce and move on with their lives. The law also leverages hefty fines on employers found guilty of employment discrimination and allows for applicants to explain their criminal or arrest backgrounds if they are legally brought up in later hiring rounds.

For survivors of domestic violence, this law can mean getting a much needed job despite a criminal record due to crimes coerced by a abuser or physical retaliation against an abuser out of self-defense. Abusers can manipulate domestic violence scenarios in which dual arrest occurs, especially when they have financial control and can economically intimidate their victims from cooperating with a prosecution. Even after domestic violence has ended, these incidences will remain on survivors’ records unless they are expunged or sealed. The new “ban the box” law will provide survivors with criminal records a better chance at employment and the right to explain past arrest or criminal records that resulted from an abusive partner.

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The Supreme Court, Guns and Defining Domestic Violence

On March 26th, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “seemingly minor acts” of domestic violence can be classified as physical force under the federal law banning gun ownership for those charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. Currently, domestic violence is defined on the federal level as committing physical violence, while definitions on the state level can be broader and vary by place. In Tennessee, where the defendant pled guilty, the definition of domestic violence is knowingly or intentionally causing bodily injury, which includes pushing, shoving, slapping and hair grabbing. However, the defendant argued that his offense was not violent enough to fall under the federal law that denied him access to guns. The Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that domestic violence normally falls under a common-law battery conviction that often broadly includes “offensive touching” such as hitting, pushing and slapping. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, on behalf of the other justices, argued that while the term “violence” connotes a great degree of force, the term domestic violence refers to acts that would not be considered “violent” in a nondomestic circumstance.

This ruling is important for the safety and security of both victims and communities due to the deadly combination of intimate partner violence and gun ownership:

Therefore, a more inclusive definition of physical force bars a greater number of abusers from gun ownership, which greatly reduces the risk of homicide in a domestic violence situation, especially of being shot by a convicted abuser.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion disagreeing with Justice Sotomayor’s definition of domestic violence, stating that the consideration of any “offensive touching, no matter how slight,” as domestic violence is wrong. He argues, “when everything is domestic violence, nothing is.” Furthermore, he disputes Justice Sotomayor’s use of a definition from advocacy groups because these groups have a “vested interest” in an inclusive definition to “broaden the base of individuals eligible for support services.” Justice Sotomayor defends her argument by stating that the decision in this case is about defining “physical force” rather than creating a definition of “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, Justice Scalia’s argument that such a definition of domestic violence is too broad carries implications that could be harmful to the safety and economic security of victims. Many domestic violence organizations and agencies, including OVW, define domestic violence as physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and economic abuse. Limiting the legal definition to physical violence does not take into account the many complexities of domestic violence or the many ways abusers control survivors. Failing to recognize the full scope of abuse will perpetuate the low reporting rate, which prevents survivors from accessing necessary protection and economic justice. Furthermore, Justice Scalia’s argument that the goal of domestic violence organizations is to expand the number of individuals who are eligible for support services is not based in fact. The goal of many of these organizations is to end domestic violence forever, thereby putting themselves out of business. Unfortunately, service providers are far from reaching this goal and even lack the capacity to meet existing need: on September 17, 2013, almost 10,000 requests from domestic violence survivors were turned down because the organizations lacked the resources or money to support them. Regardless of how domestic violence is defined in this context, this expanded definition will help more survivors be safe and free from harm.

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On the Hill: Appropriations, Minimum Wage, and SNAP

Congress had a relatively low-key week with appropriators in both chambers diving into their work for fiscal 2015 ahead of the scheduled release of the Obama administration’s budget plan on Monday, March 4. Both the House and Senate Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations subcommittees held hearings this week, hoping to build on advancing a new set of appropriations measures after the fiscal 2014 omnibus spending measure successfully cleared congress earlier this year. The most critical battle of this year’s coming appropriations cycle, which formally begins Monday with the White House’s budget request, will involve how members choose to divide the $492.5 billion set aside for domestic discretionary programs in the December budget agreement among priorities as varied as education, health care and financial regulation. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Milkulski (D-MD), has said her goal will be to move all 12 annual spending bills to the floor individually before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2014, so that a continuing resolution is not needed to carry funding past the November elections.

This week Senate Democrats also reconsidered their strategy with regard to raising the minimum wage. They ultimately decided to postpone action on a centerpiece of their income inequality agenda until later in spring as they seek to revive efforts to extend expired jobless aid. Details on a deal to extend jobless benefits, however, remain unknown.

Beyond the realm of Congress, Democratic governors around the country have announced their intent to thwart coming reductions to the federal food stamp program in their states, as a result of the recently passed farm bill aimed at saving $8.6 billion over the next 10 years. Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy made his intentions clear in a statement this week, saying that Connecticut is moving to maintain current levels of SNAP benefits and is taking “all necessary measures to protect beneficiaries from the negative consequences of the farm bill.” The farm bill included $8 billion in cuts to the SNAP program over the next decade, and also reduced the ability of states to artificially boost an individual’s benefits, requiring that an individual receive at least $20 or more in state Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) aid, before that individual’s SNAP benefits are automatically increased. In an effort to avoid the cuts, Connecticut officials have shifted an added $1.4 million of funds available under the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program to meet the new threshold. The move is expected to preserve about $66.6 million in annual food-stamp benefits for households in Connecticut. Democratic Govs. Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts have also indicated they are considering such moves.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week.

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Accessibility of State Judicial Websites for Survivors

While recently researching how state courts address domestic violence, I discovered wide variation in the quality of support for survivors between each state’s judicial branch website. Every website has access to protection order forms as well as other family court forms, including for divorce and child custody. However, some websites are clearer to navigate than others. Some state sites provide resources through either their family law, circuit court, district court, forms or self-help sections, but it often takes guessing to find forms for survivors. Other states offer a clear section labeled domestic violence or abuse. This section can include a detailed list of resources for survivors, such as explanations of what the court process is like, what a protection order is, how to make a safety plan, and the information from their state’s domestic violence coalition.

For all survivors, it’s important to have resources that are easy to understand and find. However, the current inaccessibility of many state court websites to people not well versed in legal language is especially problematic for low-income survivors and victims of economic abuse. Low-income survivors often can not afford to hire an attorney to help them in court or with court documents. Economic abuse is only one aspect of domestic violence but it damages a survivor’s income, credit and long-term economic security, which can make legal services difficult to obtain. Faced with no legal assistance and an inaccessible court website, survivors might continue to stay with their abusers if they do not understand their options and see no way out. Furthermore, survivors may benefit from knowing what costs and scheduling requirements might be associated with participating in the justice system process.

Alabama’s website was one of the hardest to access. Alabama’s judicial branch website does contain the forms to apply for a protection, but there was nothing else to identify what a protection order was or what the court process might entail for a survivor. In contrast, Oregon’s judicial website was easy to use and provided resources for legal, financial and crisis help. In fact, the first resource listed was for domestic violence hotlines and how to create a safety plan. Furthermore, the resources listed from the Department of Health and Human Services about domestic violence were in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian.

Since it can often be hard to navigate every state’s judicial websites, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) created Women’s Law, an easy to access resource that provides information from every state. Women’s Law contains opinions such as “Staying Safe”, “Preparing for Court” and “Know the Laws”. Furthermore, these sections include helpful guiding questions, like “How do I get a Restraining Order” or “How Can I Prepare My Case”. The website can also be read in Spanish. Women’s Law provided more accessible resources than a number of state’s judicial branch website and could be used as a model, along with Oregon’s website, for state courts. Providing accessible information on legal matters in this manner allows a survivor to easily navigate the court system by him or herself and get out of the relationship.

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