COVID-19 lockdowns spotlighted the danger facing women around the world who were quarantined with their abusers. Lockdowns have lifted, but now women in the U.S. face the risk of partner abuse born of economic insecurity.

With more than one in 10 Americans out of work and CARES unemployment benefits set to expire soon, whether and how the U.S. Congress will act remains uncertain.

As researchers who have studied domestic violence for decades, we can tell you this kind of uncertainty is bad news for women. Research from Colorado and around the country has long pointed to links between economic factors, such as employment and domestic violence.

Anne P. DePrince and Joanne Belknap

While people widely assume that unemployment causes domestic violence, it’s not so simple.

Rather, economic uncertainty predicts domestic violence, which means U.S. policy actions to shore up economic stability for families should be a policy priority.   

Consider a 2004 study, which found that women living in economically stressed neighborhoods were more often and more severely victimized by their intimate partners than other women.

However, women were three times more likely to be victimized when their male partners were unemployed more than once over five years. Instead of being a simple story about unemployment, men’s job instability and neighborhood economic stress predicted their violence.

The Great Recession was a period of significant economic instability that offers important lessons for today. Using data from 2001-10, research revealed links between macroeconomic trends and partner abuse, particularly coercive control.

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Coercive control is non-physical abuse that can encompass threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, and isolation of the victim, and often, her children.

A longitudinal study of nearly 5,000 parents from across the U.S. showed that upheaval and uncertainty in local economies predicted increases in men’s coercive control of their intimate partners.

The ties between the local economy and coercive control persisted even when the researchers took into account whether individual households were experiencing unemployment or struggling to meet basic needs. 

Coercive control has been a common theme in domestic violence reporting since the lockdowns, which makes sense given links between domestic violence and men’s strong beliefs about gender.

Rigid views of masculinity hold that real men are always in control. In the face of economic instability, men with strict gender beliefs may turn to exerting coercive control over their partners to regain a sense of control

Coercive control can turn deadly. Here in Colorado, researchers and domestic violence advocates have documented that intimate abusers’ threats to kill are a red flag that they will, indeed, later murder their partners and children.

Thus, policymakers should be deeply concerned that economic instability may increase coercive control with potentially lethal consequences for women and children. 

As lockdowns unfolded around the world in April, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres urged “all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

Heeding the Secretary General’s call today means creating economic policies that bring stability to households around the country, particularly among Black Indigenous People of Color communities for whom systemic racism has meant disproportionate illness, death, and uncertainty during this COVID crisis.

Unfortunately, inaction by U.S. policymakers to extend unemployment benefits or show bipartisan promise of continued economic relief for the duration of this crisis promises only to increase economic insecurity. In turn, that insecurity risks putting women and their children at risk of more abuse.

Anne P. DePrince, Ph.D., a distinguished university professor of psychology at the University of Denver, is writing a book on violence against women with Oxford University Press. Joanne Belknap, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the fifth edition of her book, The Invisible Woman: Gender, Crime, and Justice, will be published in September by Sage. 

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