Economic Distress and Intimate Partner Violence

Financial strain, unemployment and living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods can impact rates and severity of intimate partner violence.[1] NIJ has funded a number of studies that have shown relationships between:

Financial Strain and Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence is more likely to occur when couples are under financial strain.[2] Researchers in one study found a strong relationship between couples worried about financial strain (subjective feelings of financial strain [3] ) and the likelihood of intimate partner violence. The violence for couples experiencing low levels of subjective financial strain was 2.7 percent compared to 9.5 for couples experiencing high levels of subjective financial strain.

Repeat victimization of women is more frequent in couples feeling financial strain. Results of a study showed that women in relationships in which the couples experience  low levels of financial strain report less than 2 percent of repeat victimizations or being injured by their male partners, while just over 5 percent of women in relationships in which the couples experience high levels of subjective strain report repeat victimizations or being injured by their male partners.

Financial strain may keep women in abusive relationships. A review of census and survey data revealed that women at greatest risk of intimate partner violence tend to be those in relationships where the couple has few economic resources, high subjective stress about finances, experience higher unemployment and live in proximity to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The choice to stay or leave violent relationships may be based on the decision that a partner’s economic contribution to the relationship outweighs the risk of violence. It also may compel women to live with men’s violent behavior rather than seek help or take other steps to leave the violent relationship.

Employment and Intimate Partner Violence

Unstable employment increases the risk of intimate partner violence. The study showed that for couples where the male was always employed, the rate of intimate partner violence was 4.7 percent. When men experienced one period of unemployment the rate rose to 7.5 percent and when men experienced two or more periods of unemployment the rate of intimate partner violence rose to 12.3 percent.

Women who are victims of intimate partner violence may experience unstable employment. Women who were recently abused (but not those abused only in the past) experienced unstable employment for up to two years.[4]

Intimate partner violence can lead to both mental and physical health problems, which decreases a woman’s ability to retain employment. Researchers interviewed 1,311 women in Illinois once a year for three years and found that intimate partner violence contributes to stress-related physical and mental health problems for as long as a year after the abuse has occurred. Specifically, the researchers found:

  • Women who had reported abuse by their partner rated their health as poorer and their need for mental health services as greater a year later as compared to non-abused women.
  • Women with abusive partners also reported more stress related concerns and emotional problems.
  • Women with abusive partners reported more headaches, ulcers and back problems than did non-abused women. (Chronic intimate partner violence is associated with poor health).

These health problems decrease women’s ability to retain employment even as long as two years after the abuse occurred.

Economically Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Intimate Partner Violence

Violence against women in intimate relationships occurred more often, was more severe and was more likely to be repeated in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. A study showed that the rate of intimate partner violence in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is 8.7 percent compared with 4.3 percent in more economically advantaged neighborhoods.

Women in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods were more likely to be victimized repeatedly or injured severely by their partners then women who lived in more advantaged neighborhoods (6 percent versus 2 percent respectively).

African-Americans and whites with the same economic characteristics have similar rates of intimate partner violence. However, African-Americans have a higher overall rate of intimate partner violence due in part to higher levels of economic distress and more frequent residence in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.


[1] While research shows that these factors individually affect the risk of intimate partner violence, they may interact or combine in ways that are not completely understood. Thus addressing only one of the three factors may not reduce the intimate partner violence.

[2] This study looked at data from the National Survey of Families and Households to examine whether employment instability and financial strain were related to the risk for intimate partner violence against women.

[3] Subjective financial strain was defined as perceptions of financial inadequacy and was operationalized by combining responses to questions about satisfaction with finances and questions regarding worry about money.

[4] This study defined employment instability as the number of periods of unemployment for men between waves of the National Survey of Families and Households.

Date Created: January 5, 2009