Opinion

How America's threadbare welfare state enables sexual predators

A strong safety net reduces women's dependence on abusive men

Donald Trump is an absolute brute. In a now sadly familiar ritual, the revelation that Trump had boasted about sexual assault opened the floodgates for many other women to share their story. On Wednesday, The New York Times got two more women on the record as having been groped by Trump; Jessica Leeds on a flight where she happened to be seated next to him, and Rachel Cooks when she was a receptionist for a business in Trump Tower. Natasha Stoynoff, a writer for People, accused Trump of groping her in 2005 when she was covering him for the magazine. (Trump furiously denies the accusations and has threatened to sue the Times.)

But one of the stories of Trump's victims illustrates an important fact: How the threadbare American welfare state enables misogynist abuse and harms American women.

This testimonial came via Nicholas Kristof, who dedicated a New York Times column to sharing the story of Jill Harth (whose story was originally published by Lucia Graves in The Guardian several months ago). She said that Trump had groped her when she and her husband at the time were doing business with him. But later, after her relationship dissolved and Harth fell into depression, Trump began courting her. In what was surely confusing to many readers, she actually dated Trump for awhile. Why? Here's Kristof:

She was wary but also flattered and practical enough to wonder if he might help her find employment. So in 1998 she began dating him... "I was scared, thinking, 'what am I going to do now?'" she says. "When he called me and tried to work on me again, I was thinking maybe I should give this a try, maybe if he’s still working on me, I should give this rich guy a chance." [New York Times]

Part of it is Trump taking advantage of an emotionally wounded woman. But the other part is economic desperation. Trump is a super-rich guy, and Harth had just lost her job. Surely he could at least keep her off the street, if not hook her up with a very good job somewhere, perhaps working for his company. (It didn't work — they broke up after only a few months.)

That is exactly the sort of calculation that is constantly being made by women all across the country. In surveys of domestic violence victims, many report that they stay with their abuser due to fear of destitution. An abused woman might not have a job, or one good enough to support herself alone — especially not if she would have to take children with her. As I just wrote regarding Hillary Clinton's proposed expansion of the Child Tax Credit, the American welfare state provides virtually nothing to poor women with little or no earnings, not even mothers.

Even middle- and upper-middle class women can get stuck like this. Even with a good job, a place large enough to accommodate children can be difficult to swing on a single salary. And since America generally allocates school funding by local property tax revenues, moving to a cheaper neighborhood can mean a drastic downgrade in school quality for one's kids.

That is not the case in most other rich countries. In most of the rest of the developed world, a woman can rely on some kind of state protection and income support should she choose to leave an abusive partner, even without any sort of job. And where public school is universally high-quality and housing is relatively affordable, moving out is not such a tremendous risk. It's probably not a coincidence that in the OECD data on lifetime prevalence of violence against women, American women scored 36 percent, compared to 27 percent of Norwegian women, 25 percent of Dutch women, 13 percent of Austrian women, or 9 percent of Canadian women.

To be clear, there are many aspects of sexist abuse that would not be addressed by a strong welfare state. Cultural norms and beliefs about gender probably explain some of the above discrepancies. Also, abusers often simply manipulate or threaten their victims into staying — and no welfare program would stop a man from randomly groping people on an airplane. (That's a job for the cops, or perhaps the exit hatch.)

But the effects are more profound than might be supposed. Katie J.M. Baker once wrote a brilliant article about the "pick-up artist" Daryush Valizadeh (better known as Roosh), who ran into trouble when attempting to write an entry in his monstrous "Bang Country X" series about Denmark. He instead titled it Don't Bang Denmark. He was rejected over and over, because the immensely strong Danish welfare state had freed women from virtually all dependence on men and male notions about how women should look and behave. "Advocates of Nordic social democracy should be thrilled to discover a perk of gender-equalizing work-family reconciliation policies: They combat skeeviness," Baker writes.

All this is yet another reminder that the fight against sexism is inextricably intertwined with class justice. A robust, universal welfare state will make America more decent along every axis of oppression you can imagine.

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