Domestic violence and the recession

Angela Hattery, Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, explains how domestic violence or “intimate partner violence” increases during tough economic times. Hattery, who joined the faculty in 1998, is the author of “Intimate Partner Violence,” “Women, Work, and Family: Balancing and Weaving” and, with Professor of Sociology Earl Smith, of “African American Families: Issues of Health, Wealth & Violence.”

Q: Is the recession causing an increase in domestic violence?

A: My research and the anecdotal comments by practitioners point to the role the economy and money play in domestic violence. At the micro level, couples fight about money and sometimes this fighting escalates to domestic violence. At the macro level, as economic indicators show rising unemployment, rising home foreclosures, and rising bankruptcy, two indicators point to a rise in domestic violence: (1) reports by shelters that already this year they have housed more women and children than last year and (2) the rate of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide has been increasing since 2005 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. Calls to shelters and hotlines are also up.

Anecdotally, newspaper reports that have detailed individual cases of domestic violence homicide cite higher rates of domestic violence homicides this year than last year in those local areas. National statistics for this year won’t be available until January, but the local accounts indicate the likelihood we will see an increase in the number of domestic violence homicides nationwide.

Many shelter directors are reporting that one thing leading to higher rates of both domestic violence and domestic violence homicide is that victims can’t afford to leave. We know that money is a key to being able to leave. Access to money now is tighter, which means women who might otherwise leave have to stay. It is likely that the domestic violence in those situations not only continues but increases in intensity. This may be part of what’s driving the increased rate of domestic violence and homicide in particular.

Q: How do shifting family dynamics increase stress that could perhaps lead to domestic/intimate partner violence?

A: Shifting family dynamics can be the perfect recipe for domestic violence. More men have been laid off than women during this recession. My research and that of others suggests that men engage in intimate partner violence when their masculinity is threatened. One core component of masculinity is breadwinning. So, when men are laid off they may feel emasculated, which might lead them to use violence to re-assert their masculinity. This will be even more likely if they experience a “role reversal” and the wife is now the breadwinner, who expects him to take care of the home and kids while she’s at work. If she comes home and nags him for not taking care of things at home, it is likely that this will ratchet up his feelings of being emasculated and the risk for IPV increases.

Q: Are some groups affected more than others?

A: New data from the Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that both the rate of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide are now significantly higher among African American women than white women. Data on every measure of the recession — unemployment, foreclosure, and so forth — demonstrate that African-American families have been hit harder than white families. The unemployment rate for African American men is at least twice that for white men. Thus, this spike in domestic violence among African Americans may be directly linked to the fact that the recession hit this community earlier than the white, middle-class community.

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