Reid links rise in domestic abuse to unemployment; critics say tie is overblown

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; 5:25 PM

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) drew catcalls from conservatives Tuesday for saying that men "tend to become abusive" when out of work, but battered-women's advocates who have watched their caseloads grow as the recession took hold pointed to thick federally funded studies substantiating a link between financial strain and domestic abuse.

Reid spoke on the Senate floor on behalf of the $15 billion jobs bill late Monday afternoon. "I met with some people while I was home dealing with domestic abuse. It has gotten out of hand. Why? Men don't have jobs," he said.

"Women don't have jobs, either, but women aren't abusive, most of the time. Men, when they're out of work, tend to become abusive. Domestic crisis shelters in Nevada are jammed. That's the way it is all over the country."

The snark followed quickly. "Is that a threat from Harry Reid?" quipped National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez. mocked up a mug shot of Reid under the captions, "Soon-to-be ex-Senator Harry Reid, arrested for fear of domestic abuse after he loses his job in November 2010" for its Tuesday morning briefing. Another site gunning for his ouster from public office labeled him a "future wife abuser."

While no study suggests that men "tend" to become abusive when unemployed, a 2004 National Institute of Justice study found that men who experience unemployment are more likely to engage in arguments with intimate partners that end in violence than men who are employed, and that the impact of unemployment is particularly acute in disadvantaged communities with thin social ties, where 15.6 percent of couples with men experiencing unstable employment have violent altercations.

As a group, women who lose their jobs also are at greater risk for being battered. A 2005 study by the institute found that women who become unemployed are more likely to be abused or to see an escalation in existing abuse.

Such factors have contributed to a surge in domestic violent reports in jurisdictions around the country in recent years, victims' advocates say.

"Senator Reid is absolutely correct that high unemployment exacerbates domestic violence," said Peg J. Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Abusers who lose their jobs are home more often. If they used their income as a means of controlling their victim, they may turn to violence when that source of control is gone. Victims who lose their jobs may feel more financially dependent on their abuser and less able to leave.

". . . We've seen a stunning spike in domestic-violence-related deaths in Pennsylvania since the beginning of the recession: from 92 deaths in 2006, to 121 in 2007, to 147 in 2008, to 198 in 2009," said Dierkers.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 13 percent increase in calls from 2007 to 2009. And reports of increased calls to hotlines or visits to shelters have also surfaced since 2007 in states as varied as Kansas, Missouri, Rhode Island and Virginia.

"The economy does not cause domestic violence but can make it worse," said Sue Else, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in a statement defending the senator as "a champion for survivors of domestic violence."

The unemployment rate in Nevada, where Reid is lagging in polls behind his Republican challengers, surged to 13 percent by December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- up from 5.2 percent just two years earlier and a historic statewide low of 4.2 percent in March 2006.

"The unfortunate reality is that the loss of a job is yet one more trigger for individuals with a tendency toward domestic violence," said Estelle Murphy, executive director of Safe Nest, the largest domestic violence shelter in southern Nevada, in a statement Tuesday.

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