Has the recession increased family violence?

New evidence against my earlier views.

Last year I cited a study of abusive head trauma in children which showed marked increases in four cities after the start of the recession (that was a conference paper that now has been published in Pediatrics). That followed a list of evidence supporting the idea that economic recession was increasing violence within families, from local intimate homicide rates and domestic violence court backlogs to social service reports and many news media anecdotes, along with general evidence that unemployment increases violence.

Since then, a 2011 review published in Sociology of Crime Law and Deviance reports that evidence for recession effects on intimate partner violence are weak at best, so there is no reason to expect an increase to show up when the data on this recession is put together. And now the latest data from the National Crime Victimization Survey shows a sharp drop in relationship violence against women in 2010:

But this is hard to evaluate because — as with divorce — it’s part of a long-term declining trend. To put that declining trend in perspective, I lined it up with the trends for violent crime, and the subset of serious violent crime. Showing these as percent changes, they are all following the same general trend. If anything, the decline in intimate partner violence against women has slowed relative to the others since 2007, which could be a sign of recession-related violence:

Finally, there is the problem of dating the “recession” to identify its effects. How to do that partly depends on what aspect of the the economic crisis you think might be affecting family violence — unemployment, home foreclosures, social service cuts, and so on. This has been dragging on long enough that we could assemble evidence in different directions several times. Here’s a final example: domestic homicide rates in New York state, which came out last month.

The total number of New York domestic homicides (which include intimate-partner homicides even if they don’t live together) increased about 10% in 2010, but the intimate partner portion of the total fell. You might say 2008 and 2009 constituted a recession-related spike in intimate-partner homicides, but 2010 doesn’t fit.

In short (not short enough), I’m not as convinced as I was that the recession has increased the level of violence over what it would have been otherwise. So, although there are sure to be many acts of violence triggered by the crisis, I recommend skepticism about broad conclusions on overall trends.

8 thoughts on “Has the recession increased family violence?

  1. It seems just as likely that the recession decreased domestic violence by creating more families where the woman had a job and the man didn’t, thus empowering women. I just mean that it seems like there are a lot of different ways it could go. Even if you had really clear numbers, it would be hard to know why it was happening, or not happening.


  2. Along a similar recession-mechanisms line, I would love to know more about the effect of doubling-up on family dynamics and outcomes like family violence. I spent a number of years of elementary school in a doubled-up household and, while I know it put tremendous stress on my parents’ relationship (a potential instigator of violence, etc.), living with my mom’s parents kept us all in check in a way.

    On a somewhat related note, while I know that people are doubling-up because they’re struggling, I wonder if there is more variety in the current economic climate than what we typically assume a doubled-up household to be. The opportunity to move in with my (upper) middle-class grandparents gave me access to schools and peers that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Doubling-up might hurt some people and help others, depending in large part on the mobility experienced (or not) in such a move. .


  3. Both great points. I think this shows the problem of only looking at the overall trend. The authors of the head trauma paper (now published in Pediatrics — I added a link above) make the point that different kinds of risks and risk populations are affected by different kinds of shocks. Unemployment adults spending more time at home may have more time to supervise children, which might make them safer. Or, unemployed adults might find themselves caring for children they aren’t used to spending time with. And both might also be happening in the newly doubled families. So lots of things might work in different directions.


  4. If anything, the decline in intimate partner violence against women has slowed relative to the others since 2007, which could be a sign of recession-related violence:

    Or, since the “read line” plunged much more steeply in 1998-2000, it could be that the plot isn’t very smooth.


  5. So glad to have just discovered your blog. If it’s not too dated already, I wonder if I might raise a question: given that the dynamics of financial dependency in the family are perhaps stronger in times of economic crises, in addition to a potential reluctance to define a violent situation as violent (I think W.I. Thomas here) as a result, because of how that might threaten both the family and its individuals, is it possible that reports of family violence might fall with the economy? Is that even possible to substantiate, sociologically speaking?


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s