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How the Great Recession Increased Domestic Abuse

New research shows that financial uncertainty caused by the economic crash increased the prevalence of controlling behavior between domestic partners.

Almost seven years have passed since the Great Recession was finally, technically, over, and only recently have social scientists had enough long-term data to calculate how the crisis affected American families beyond economics. A new paper, published in the journal Demography, goes deep inside relationships to show that hardship and uncertainty increased rates of intimate partner violence, defined as abuse through violent or controlling means.

The paper is based in part on data from an ongoing longitudinal study that surveys thousands of mothers who first gave birth from 1998 to 2000. The survey asks the women questions that indicate "economic hardship," such as whether they've been able to make rent or afford food. It also looks for controlling or violent behavior by their partners, asking about whether a woman's partner prevents her from seeing friends and family, for example, or slap and kick her. It takes personal interviews to compile this intimate data because, unlike traditional economic indicators, "this is not something we collect in the course of public business," said Daniel Schneider, a University of California-Berkeley assistant professor who co-authored the paper. 

The researchers found that if a woman or her partner were unemployed, the likelihood that she would experience intimate partner violence increased by almost a third, from 10 percent to 13 percent. Women who described facing broader economic hardship were even more likely to face abuse. Their chance of experiencing intimate partner violence more than doubled, from 7 percent to 15 percent, indicating that unemployment isn't the only factor that erodes relationships.

More broadly, the study found that people don't need to personally face hardship or unemployment to lash out in a time such as the Great Recession. The study found that the average local unemployment rate itself doesn't correlate to increased abuse, but it does affect people when local jobless rates deteriorate quickly. "That's what we call the climate of uncertainty," said Schneider. As the paper summarized, "When the unemployment rate worsens by 50 percent over the prior 12 months, the prevalence of abuse rises from 10 percent to 12 percent; when the unemployment rate doubles within a year, abuse rises to 14 percent."

Schneider noted that for couples feeling this general economic anxiety, there was no increase in violence; the rise in abuse came solely as a measure of more controlling behavior. "It could be that the loss of control in one domain manifests itself in another," Schneider said.  

Schneider posited that other types of uncertainty, aside from broad economic downturns, could have similar effects. For example, volatile incomes or unpredictable schedules could potentially create anxieties.  

The paper included only some of the researchers' findings. Schneider said their other early analysis (PDF) indicated that the increase in abusive behavior was concentrated among white couples and among those with at least some college education. The theory is that these couples are less used to dealing with economic hardship than are black couples or those with less formal education. Schneider says they're working on a paper refining those results.

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