Employment and the Risk of Domestic Abuse among Low-Income Women

By Gibson-Davis, Christina M.; Magnuson, Katherine et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Employment and the Risk of Domestic Abuse among Low-Income Women


Gibson-Davis, Christina M., Magnuson, Katherine, Gennetian, Lisa A., Duncan, Greg J., Journal of Marriage and Family


This paper uses data from 2 randomized evaluations of welfare-to-work programs-the Minnesota Family Investment Program and the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies-to estimate the effect of employment on domestic abuse among low-income single mothers. Unique to our analysis is the application of a 2-stage least squares method, in which random assignment enables us to control for omitted characteristics that might otherwise confound the association between employment and domestic abuse. We find that increased maternal employment decreases subsequent reports of domestic abuse in both studies. In the Minnesota Family Investment Program-a program with an enhanced income disregard that allowed welfare mothers to keep a portion of their welfare income as earnings rose-an increase in household incomes appears to have contributed to reductions in reports of domestic abuse.

Key Words: cash assistance, domestic abuse, employment, low-income, mothers.

The high documented lifetime rates of domestic violence among poor women (Tolman & Raphael, 2000) have sensitized policymakers to the role that family circumstances might play in affecting the incidence and frequency of domestic abuse among low-income women. The relationship between family circumstances and abuse is a particularly salient concern, given the current welfare policy environment in which encouraging or requiring employment is a condition of receiving public assistance. Unfortunately, the research to date provides no clear message about the magnitude or even the direction of the association between employment and domestic abuse, leaving policymakers with relatively little guidance about how best to design policy that can both support the economic self-sufficiency of low-income single mothers and minimize or eradicate their experience with domestic abuse (Farmer & Tiefenthaler, 1997; Macmillan & Gartner, 1999).

The Family Violence Option, a policy adopted by nearly all states, is designed to address concerns that women who experience domestic violence will be unable to fulfill work requirements or maintain stable employment. If domestic violence is verified, the Family Violence Option allows caseworkers or their supervisors to temporarily exempt women from work mandates and defer time limits (Raphael & Haennicke, 1999; Tolman & Raphael, 2000). The Family Violence Option has been implemented because of worries that a woman's partner may resent her growing economic independence and attempt to sabotage her labor force participation through emotional and physical coercion or, in the extreme, punish her for usurping his role as household provider (Lloyd, 1997; Riger, Ahrens, & Blickenstaff, 2000).

The motivation for the Family Violence Option is consistent with social exchange theory, a broad sociological framework that offers several explanations for domestic abuse. Exchange theory suggests that violence results from an imbalance of power within a relationship (Riger & Krieglstein, 2000; Tichenor, 1999). Some social exchange scholars emphasize each partner's economic and symbolic control over household resources as the key to understanding gender relations (Goode, 1971; Kaukinen, 2004; McCloskey, 1996). From this perspective, domestic abuse occurs when a man loses his instrumental and symbolic role as a breadwinner. As women become more economically independent, men may resort to an available resource-namely, violence-to compensate both for their labor market difficulties and for their frustrations when women become chief breadwinners (Fox, Benson, DeMaris, & Van Wyk, 2002; Hornung, McCullough, & Sugimoto, 1981; Macmillan & Gartner, 1999; McCloskey). If this hypothesis is true, then increasing employment may increase the risk of abuse.

Influenced by bargaining theory in economics (Farmer & Tiefenthaler, 1997; Lundberg & Pollak, 1996), other social exchange scholars place greater emphasis on how partners use their power over resources to bargain and make differing predictions about the effects of employment. …

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