The Recession’s Domestic Toll

The situation looks bad from the outside: Record foreclosure rates, a national unemployment rate hovering around 10%, and the average length of joblessness at its highest level since 1948. But inside, behind closed doors, many American families face a more private destructive force: 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically abused by an intimate partner each year. And with the economy still on shaky ground, fragile family relations are snapping.

Experts say that domestic violence has long been an epidemic in the US, but during this recession shelters and programs nationwide have noticed an upsurge of requests for help. Calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline spiked 13% from 2007 to 2009. At the Women’s Center in New Bedford, MA, calls have risen more than 25% in the past eighteen months.

Foreclosures are uniformly stressful, and for some, the process may be unbearable. A particularly severe example is the January morning when a Spencer, Massachusetts man dealing with a foreclosure killed his wife, shot his horse, torched his house and truck, and then ended his own life.

No one is suggesting that a bad economy draws violent behavior out of thin air, but research shows that unemployment exacerbates family abuse. A 2005 study by the National Institute of Justice found that women who lose their jobs are at a greater risk for being battered. They also report that men who lose their jobs are more likely to have violent arguments with their intimate partners than employed men.

The odds a man has ever been threatened by a partner or spouse are 1 in 16.67. But research consistently shows that women are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence and suffer more serious physical attacks. The odds a woman has ever been pushed, slapped, choked, or hit by a partner or spouse are 1 in 3.7, and an estimated 24 to 54% of all women seen in the ER have a lifetime history of abuse.

Domestic violence advocates say that women may try to weather abusive relationships through bad economic times out of fear they won’t be able to find housing or support their children. At the same time, many women are fighting back. For example, the San Joaquin Women’s Center reports that the number of women seeking restraining orders increased 50% in the first three months of 2009.

The reasons for the gender and economic-status bias of domestic violence have a lot to do with psychology, health, and cultural norms of masculinity. A 2009 report in Economic Stress and Domestic Violence suggests that abusive partners may react to the loss of power and status that unemployment brings and use force to regain some control. The sociologists also note that women who depend on income from their partners are less likely to be abused by these men.

Last year, President Obama appointed Lynn Rosenthal as the first advisor on violence against women. Rosenthal faces high hurdles. Not only is the dismal economic climate aggravating domestic disputes, but it’s also hurting programs built to help victims. The NNECV (National Network to End Domestic Violence) reports that programs have always been underfunded and understaffed. Sweeping budget cuts across the country have forced programs to reduce service or simply close.

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