Financial Manipulation and the Road to Freedom: How the EITC and CTC Can Support Survivors of Domestic Violence

Nandini Singh

Domestic violence is a horrific and pervasive issue that drastically affects the physical, social, emotional, and economic well-being of millions across the nation. Three in ten women and one in ten men in the U.S. report experiencing a form of domestic violence (DV), such as stalking and physical abuse. These are just two forms of coercive behavior that keep people trapped in these vicious cycles. Chief among all abusive behaviors is financial manipulation which is the most used method to perpetuate domestic violence. According to the Department of Financial Protection & Innovation (DFPI), “Financial abuse is the most pervasive form of domestic abuse, affecting nearly 99% of all domestic violence cases.”

Although domestic violence can be seen at every level of the socio-economic spectrum, low-income survivors face particular economic challenges that may prolong or prevent them from leaving an abusive relationship. Fortunately, there is increasing dialogue surrounding financial manipulation and resources available to survivors such as anti-poverty tools like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which can help lay the foundation for financial independence.

The EITC and the CTC, if claimed, can potentially give survivors additional economic means to address financial manipulation and abuse they may be facing. In the case of a survivor’s evolving needs, claiming these tax credits can provide crucial economic support and allow them to reclaim independence through opening bank accounts, putting down a security deposit for a home, or meeting pressing needs to leave an abusive relationship or to manage a new life outside of one.

Financial abuse can take many forms, from reducing a partner’s savings and assets to refusals to pay rent or sabotaging employment. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women leaving an abusive partner, based on the controlling nature of the relationship, may “lose access to their income, shared housing, employment, health care, and more.” Survivors also risk falling into poverty even if not previously within low-income levels. This can be a result of medical, relocation, transportation, and childcare costs incurred after leaving their partner which places survivors in vulnerable positions prior to and after leaving harmful relationships.

The EITC and CTC support workers and families in ways that directly address challenges like meeting childcare costs and affording basic needs like food and shelter. Both tax credits have lifted and kept families out of poverty and have improved health and education outcomes for children. The EITC and CTC together – according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) – lifted 10.6 million people above the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) line, providing additional earnings to workers who are typically paid low wages.

Currently, the federal EITC is worth between $600 and $7,430 (depending on family size) and the federal CTC is worth up to $2,000 per qualifying dependent. Refunds from these tax credits help individuals afford food, housing, education, and vocational training.

Survivors who are legally bound to their spouse and striving to regain control of their finances may consider filing a tax return as “Married Filing Separately (MFS).” However, under current eligibility requirements, individuals using MFS for their taxes are unable to claim the federal EITC. Advocacy groups and lawmakers recognize this shortcoming, and states, such as Washington, are working to expand their local tax credits to MFS filers in an effort to better support survivors of domestic abuse.

While claiming the EITC and CTC cannot eradicate abuse, income claimed from these tax credits can be approached as an additional lifeline for survivors, helping them to pay for basic needs they otherwise wouldn’t be able to manage without their partner. With access to income beyond their abuser’s control, survivors gain an opportunity to break free from an unstable, unsafe environment, providing them the means to do so. Above all, this financial empowerment not only offers a way out but also the chance to embrace a life free of intimidation and coercion, where they can begin anew.