The Great Recession Increased The Risk Of Abusive Marriages

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Economic climates where unemployment jumps dramatically, including the Great Recession, increase the likelihood that married women will experience violent or controlling behavior at the hands of their spouse, a new study from three researchers finds.

Daniel Schneider of the University of California, Berkeley, Kirsten Harknett of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sara McLanahan examined five waves of survey data with a cross-section of the parents of nearly 5,000 children who were interviewed at the children’s birth and then in follow up years. The last wave was surveyed between 2007 and 2009, as the recession was beginning to affect the economy. They then combined that data with data on the changes in local unemployment rates. “We find that the Great Recession and other periods of worsening labor market conditions in the 2000s were associated with increases in the prevalence of violent or controlling behavior in marriage,” they write.

Specifically, they found that an increasing unemployment rate is associated with a significant increase in the risk of being in a violent or controlling marriage. “This result is consistent with the idea that economic hardship and/or uncertainty leads to relationship conflict, as well as with the idea that recession-induced delays in divorce could trap some women in violent/controlling relationships,” they write. In times of stable unemployment rates, just under 15 percent of married mothers report abuse. But when the unemployment rate doubles, which is what happened during the recession, about 20 percent reported the same. Small changes in unemployment rates, however, don’t impact relationships, and neither does the level of unemployment itself, just the dramatic increases.

Things are very different for a couple that lives together but isn’t married, however. Increasing unemployment isn’t associated with the risk of being in an abusive cohabiting relationship. The researchers posit this is because these relationships “involve fewer joint investments and are easier to dissolve” than marriages, so fewer people get stuck in bad times.

The increase in the risk of abusive marital behavior isn’t uniform, however. The researchers note that while violent and controlling behavior is more common in normal economic times among black and Hispanic mothers compared to white ones, in bad times, the risk of being in an abusive marriage becomes the same for all races because white mothers’ risk jumps. When unemployment rates double, the share of marriages that are likely to be abusive are about 20 percent for Hispanic and white mothers and about 15 percent for black mothers. The risk also increases for college-educated mothers, but for those with a high school degree or less things remain stable.

These findings fit with what programs that serve domestic violence survivors themselves have reported. In 2012, the annual Mary Kay Foundation survey found that eight in ten programs reported an increase in women seeking help, which was the fourth year in a row in which they reported big increases. The economy certainly appeared to play a big part, as 70 percent of victims were reporting that financial issues were a factor in their abuse and nearly half pointed to job loss. A majority of shelters also reported that the abuse had become more violent since the recession.

But the increase in need for services has coincided with tough financial times for the programs themselves. Nearly 80 percent told Mary Kay that they saw a decrease in funding from government services, and others have seen reductions in donations and corporate funding. That meant 43 percent had to decrease their services.

Reduced services can hit survivors hard. On a single day last year, domestic violence support programs were unable to meet 9,641 requests for help for things like emergency shelter and legal representation. More than a quarter of service providers said it was because of cuts in government funding and 20 percent attributed it to staff reductions — nearly 1,700 positions were eliminated last year. The largest share of unmet needs related to emergency shelter, which leaves victims in highly dangerous situations. As one program previously told ThinkProgress, “As [services] get cut we’re going to see more and more homicides.”