NPR on divorce, recession and violence

NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam the other day did a very nice job in a long story on how the recession may be affecting relationships and divorce. He interviewed me, and in this post I provide the sources for my comments.

The story began with a reference to this paper by Judith Hellerstein and Melinda Sandler Morrill, who find that divorce rates in the last few decades are lower in states with higher unemployment rates. They apply a rigorous set of tests and alternative explanations, and it looks pretty solid. This is tricky because research on couples shows that unemployment increases marital stress and the risk of violence. That’s not necessarily a contradiction, of course, since the research on states doesn’t show the people who are actually unemployed are the ones getting divorced — it could be other people in those states who are not getting divorced (people who fear unemployment, for example).

Vedantam’s story focused on two women: one who postponed a divorce because she couldn’t afford the legal fees and costs of starting over, and another who felt she was at risk of violence because economic scarcity was keeping her and her husband together after they intended to separate permanently. The examples made a good case for how unemployment could worsen marriages even as it prolonged them. NPR also has a new survey out, which shows marriages suffering when one partner is unemployed:

From my own explorations on divorce in the current economic crisis, it looks like there might be a delayed uptick in divorce, and higher rates in states where the crisis was worse — but that remains to be confirmed.

Anyway, my job in this story was to interpret the evidence that unemployment increases the risk of domestic violence, which I’ve blogged about before, here and here.

The NPR transcript reads:

Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that multiple studies have found that the marital distress that comes from money problems and feeling trapped is strongly associated with an increased risk of domestic violence. One study, for example, looked at women who showed up in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that were both intentional and non-intentional.

“When you compare the women who were injured intentionally and women who were treated for other conditions in the emergency departments, they found that those who were injured intentionally were more likely to have experienced recent unemployment in their families,” Cohen says….

At the same time, however, Cohen says the overall rates of domestic violence have generally been on the decline. But what’s clear, he says, is that unemployment increases the risk of domestic violence.

“I’m quite confident from the research on couples — and what drives violence within couples — that among the people who are experiencing economic shock or dislocation or unemployment, there is an increased risk of violence,” he says. “And I would not expect that to be any different during this recession.”

These were my principal sources:

In addition, my searching around over the last several years has not turned up any evidence that would lead me to doubt this association between unemployment and violence. Still, if you think I’m off on this, I’d be glad to hear about it.

2 thoughts on “NPR on divorce, recession and violence

  1. Philip,
    Nice job in the NPR story — I cannot believe I missed hearing you live on this one since I almost never miss ATC. Thanks for pointing it out to me. Something along these lines may be my “lead in” for intro sociology this winter….sort of a how we can exercise the sociological imagination to make sense of things that don’t “fit” conventional wisdom.



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