Explaining the Recent Decline in Domestic Violence

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Domestic violence is a serious problem in our society with significant social costs. Despite the tremendous toll on both the victims and society, domestic violence was not recognized as a public health issue in the United States until relatively recently. With the women's movement of the 1970s, domestic violence was increasingly recognized as a public (not a private) issue. The result has been growing public and private initiatives to eradicate domestic violence. After more than 20 years of effort, the rate of domestic violence appears to be declining. According to a recent report published by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ, 2000), violence against women by intimate partners fell by 21% between 1993 and 1998 from 1.1 million violent incidents to 876,340 incidents. (1)

What factors explain this recent decline? Economic models of domestic violence predict that violence against women will decline as women's alternatives outside their relationships improve. (See Tauchen et al. [1991], and Farmer and Tiefenthaler [1997], further discussed in section II.) One way to improve battered women's alternatives is by providing shelters, hotlines, and other services that help make leaving their relationships realistic for these women. Federal, state, and local governments as well as numerous nonprofit groups have contributed to increasing the availability of services for battered women throughout the country over the past 25 years.

Though programs that provide services to battered women (such as shelters) may provide women with short-term alternatives to staying with their abusers, improving women's economic status (for example, by increasing educational attainment) will result in more battered women being able to achieve self-sufficiency in the long run. If battered women can support themselves, they are both more likely to leave and have more power within their relationships if they stay. As a result, economic equality for women--both at the individual and community level--is also predicted to lower the incidence of domestic violence.

Do better alternatives for women explain the decline in domestic violence in the 1990s? Have both improved economic status and more service provision provided women with better alternatives to abusive relationships and therefore lowered the incidence of intimate partner abuse? This article uses the Area-Identified National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) (see section III for more discussion of the data set), made available to us through a grant from the National Consortium for Violence Research in cooperation with the U.S. Census Bureau, to examine the determinants of the incidence of intimate partner abuse. The NCVS is the same data used by the DOJ to construct their annual estimates of victimization. Because the Area-Identified NCVS includes detailed geographical identifiers, the authors are able to investigate the effects of county-level variables, including the existence of programs for battered women, welfare payments, and women's overall economic status on the incidence of abuse at the individual leve l. By examining the determinants of intimate partner abuse at the individual level, this article can provide some insight into which factors explain the decline in the incidence of domestic violence nationally.

Using a probit analysis, the authors examine the determinants of an individual woman reporting abuse (see section IV). The findings generate three important factors that are likely to have contributed to the decline in violence against women in the 1990s. First, although shelters, hotlines, and counseling programs targeted at battered women are found to have no significant impact on the likelihood of domestic abuse, the availability of legal services in the county of residence has a significant negative effect on the likelihood that an individual woman is battered. Given that the provision of legal services for victims of domestic violence has increased dramatically in the 1990s, the authors conclude that legal services provision is one likely significant factor in explaining the decline. …