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Understanding the causes of domestic violence: job loss and unemployment benefit

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Understanding the causes of domestic violence: job loss and unemployment benefit

One in three women worldwide report having experienced domestic violence at some stage in their lives. Domestic violence has risen worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic, leading the UN to call it a shadow pandemic. But the reason for this rise is not entirely clear. Sonia Bhalotra, Diogo Britto, Paolo Pinotti and Breno Sampaio use administrative data from Brazil to understand the effect of job loss and unemployment benefit payments on domestic violence.

Most research on domestic violence is framed around the power imbalance within couples, and considers potential earnings. Several studies have investigated whether domestic violence can be reduced by offering women cash transfers, skills training or jobs. Our research deviates from existing research in two ways: first it analyses the impacts of an actual (rather than potential) earnings shock and, second, it studies not only women’s earnings but also men’s earnings. In particular, we analyse impacts of male job loss on the perpetration of domestic violence and of female job loss on victimisation. We then assess whether unemployment benefits can mitigate the impacts of job loss on domestic violence.

Our results are relevant for the many countries suffering high post-pandemic unemployment: We find that job loss has a significant effect on domestic violence, and that unemployment benefits may not mitigate this effect if they lead to men being unemployed for longer. Benefits do, however, have the potential to mitigate the effect if accompanied by policies that encourage men back into work.

The data

A handful of studies implement randomised control trials to evaluate interventions for domestic violence, but they use unavoidably small datasets. We use administrative data for Brazil that generates unusually large analysis samples and that contain multiple measures of domestic violence that we can track over time and link to longitudinal employment registers. We primarily analyse court registers for Brazil that contain every domestic violence case during 2009–2018. In this period there are 2 million domestic violence cases, representing 11% of all criminal justice cases. The employment data contain about 100 million workers, 60 million employment spells and 10 million layoffs per year.

An association between job loss and domestic violence can arise from worker-level traits – men who lose their jobs may be the sorts of men who have an underlying tendency to commit domestic violence. To identify the causal effects of job loss, we want to detach job loss from worker characteristics. We do this by studying job loss that occurs in mass layoffs, also showing results for the extreme case of plant closures when all workers in a firm are dismissed at once.

A common problem with analysing data on reported acts of violence is that it can be difficult to disentangle changes in the occurrence of violence from changes in reporting behaviour. We therefore complement our analysis with additional measures of domestic violence that do not rely on victims reporting the event to the police. These are: indicators for women using domestic violence public shelters, and notifications of domestic violence by health providers that are mandated by the federal government.

The findings

We find that job loss among men raises the chances of perpetration of domestic violence and job loss among women raises the chances of victimisation. The effects are large: the increase in domestic violence following job loss is about 30% in the judicial data on prosecutions and preventative orders. We find that men who are eligible for unemployment benefits are no less likely to commit domestic violence than men who are ineligible, while benefits are being paid. Once benefits expire, those who are eligible for benefits are more likely to commit domestic violence.

Why is this happening?

We propose the following explanation. Job loss of either partner constitutes a major shock to household income. This disturbs the equilibrium, leading the couple to renegotiate allocation of a tighter household budget, creating grounds for conflict. Additional stresses deriving from income uncertainty and a sense of unworthiness potentially aggravate this. At the same time, the couple tends to spend more time together if either is unemployed, and this increases opportunities for violence.

The reason that unemployment benefits do not lessen the tendency for unemployed men to commit domestic violence is that men on unemployment benefits tend to be unemployed for longer, increasing the time the couple spends together (exposure). While benefits are being received, exposure effects are offset by an income effect, but once the flow of benefits stops, exposure effects dominate income effects and the likelihood of domestic violence increases.

Significance of the findings

Our analysis uses pre-pandemic data. However, our findings are topical as the pandemic has led to widespread job and earnings losses and to families being forced to spend more time together. As these are the mechanisms for domestic violence identified in our research, it potentially illuminates the recent worldwide surge in domestic violence which the United Nations has described as a ‘shadow pandemic’.

The media has emphasised social distancing as a cause of domestic violence, but much less has been said about job loss or earnings loss as a potential cause. Lockdown mandates have been lifted in many countries. But unemployment rates look set to rise, potentially increasing exposure even in the absence of mobility restrictions. Unemployment also tightens income constraints. Our research therefore suggests that domestic violence may persist beyond lockdown.

This month the UK ends its furlough scheme, and the full extent of the impact of the pandemic on UK employment will be realised. Our findings give policymakers the opportunity to put in place policy measures that will mitigate the risks of domestic violence associated with job loss.

Policy recommendations

Our main findings are that job loss influences domestic violence first by generating an income shortfall, and second by increasing exposure to violence. So, the ideal policy intervention would compensate the income shortfall and get people out of the home and back to work. Unemployment benefits can help but need to be combined with active policies aimed at getting the unemployed back to work. Traditionally, these policies are training and support with job search, but they could include community service.

The policy infrastructure has been primarily concerned with providing support to victims in the shape of shelters, counselling and protection orders. Interventions designed to prevent domestic violence have focused on the economic empowerment of women, though they sometimes misfire. Our research suggests the relevance of the economic status of men and the potential for policies that compensate men and women for income losses.

Sonia Bhalotra, University of Warwick and CAGE

Diogo Britto, Bocconi University

Paolo Pinotti, Bocconi University

Breno Sampaio, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco/UFPE

Further reading

Bhalotra, S., Britto, D., Pinotti, P., and Sampaio, B. (2021), ‘Domestic violence: the potential role of job loss and unemployment’, CAGE Policy Briefing (No.34)

Bhalotra, S., Britto, D., Pinotti, P., and Sampaio, B. (2021), ‘Job displacement, unemployment benefits and domestic violence’, CAGE Working Paper (No. 573)