UW Today

This is an archived article.

July 12, 2007

Domestic violence, psychological distress are recipe for higher unemployment

The scars created by domestic violence persist long after the bruises have healed, leaving some adolescent mothers psychologically distressed and increasing their chances of being unemployed, according to a new study.

The finding comes from University of Washington research examining the effects of domestic violence on employment and use of the welfare system before and after the passage of federal welfare reform legislation in 1996.

The study found that domestic violence had no effect on welfare use before or after the legislation was enacted. It also did not have an effect on employment before the new law was passed, but afterward the likelihood of being unemployed increased if there was a history of domestic violence during the transition to adulthood.

“When you are an adolescent mother and have violence in your relationship it sets you up for problems down the road,” said Taryn Lindhorst, lead author of the study and a UW associate professor of social work. “Domestic violence has an accumulative effect over time so that abused women were less likely to work. After the change in welfare policy, women who were abused were less likely to be employed compared to teenage mothers who were not abused.”

Data for this paper came from an ongoing study of pregnant and parenting women starting when they were 17 years old. The employment-welfare study followed 234 women for 13 years, starting in 1988. Fifty-one percent of the women were white and 28 percent were black. American Indians, Asians, Pacific Islanders and biracial individuals made up the remaining 21 percent.

The women’s welfare and employment status, along with their levels of psychological distress, were checked before welfare reform in 1994 and after welfare reform was implemented in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Domestic violence was measured several times between 1990 and 1993, and included acts ranging from women being physically threatened by partners to being beaten, choked, burned or having a gun fired at them. Psychological distress included feelings of depression and anxiety.

The data showed many adolescent mothers initially experienced high levels of domestic violence and welfare use, both of which declined in adulthood. Among the findings were:


  •  Before age 18, 69 percent reported at least one episode of domestic violence. At age 20, 38 percent reported being abused in the past six months. By the time the women were approximately 25, 15 percent of the women reported current abuse.
  •  Just after giving birth, 47 percent reported in 1989 that welfare was their primary source of financial support. That figure jumped to 62 percent in 1992, but fell to 10 percent by 2000.
  •  Before welfare reform, 40 percent of the women were working. In the three years that were measured post-reform, an average of 63 percent were working full time, part time or in a temporary job.

Lindhorst said there are a number of reasons why domestic abuse victims have difficulty being employed.

“The women in this study who had high feelings of psychological distress in addition to being abused were the ones most likely to be unemployed later. Some women are able to find the necessary support to deal with the sadness and fear that are part being abused. But a significant portion of the abused women in this study continued to have strong feelings of depression and anxiety, and those who had both abuse and emotional distress were the least likely to be working,” she said

“People need a network to help get a job, and low-income women need to be connected to a community center or a group of friends. However, domestic violence socially isolates these women. Some are embarrassed to be seen with bruises,” she said.

There are also other explanations for why abuse might interfere with employment.

“Low-income women use their network of friends and family to help get a job. However, one of the aspects of domestic violence is that abusive partners isolate these women. Some abusers threaten women if they have social contact with others, and this makes it hard for women to maintain their social networks. Not having supportive contact with friends and family can make it hard to find and keep a job,” Lindhorst said.

“Domestic violence also may contribute to a disrupted employment history. All of the personal controls that sometimes are part of domestic violence can make it difficult to hold a job. If an employer has a resume from a woman who has a consistent employment history compared to some abused women who may have gaps in their employment because of the abuse, this also may contribute to differences in employment.”

Lindhorst said the study also highlights the importance of intervening to assist battered women with multiple symptoms of psychological distress. By helping women to feel that they are functioning better, they may also be more capable of finding work and becoming economically self-sufficient.

Co-authors of the study are Monica Oxford, a UW research associate professor of social work, and Mary Gillmore, a former UW professor of social work who is now the director of the Arizona State University social work program. The research was published in the current issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence and was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health

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For more information, contact Lindhorst at (206) 616-2152 or tarynlin@u.washington.edu