When Male Unemployment Rises, Domestic Violence Rates Fall

A fascinating new glimpse at how gender-based jobless rates change household dynamics

There was some relatively good news a few days ago that the European Union's unemployment rate fell in June for the first time in more than two years -- that is, until you consider that 10.9 percent of the union's workforce is still jobless, and that number for countries that use the euro is 12.1 percent.

Overall, Europe has historically had higher unemployment rate for women, but throughout the recession, male joblessness has caught up and at times outpaced that of women. Recently, a number of European countries have reported that joblessness there has started impacting men harder than women. Sweden, for example, now has 33,000 more male than female unemployed people. In Ireland, the unemployment rate for women is 10.5 percent, and for men it's 18.1 percent. Last year, more than half of European countries had more unemployed men than women. Here's a chart of last year's average unemployment rates across EU countries, by gender:


Unemployment rates that high are obviously devastating in any case, but there might be an upside to an economy in which fewer men than women can find work. According to a new paper from the University of London and University of Munich, a rising male unemployment rate correlates with a decrease in the incidence of domestic abuse, while a falling female unemployment rate correlates with an uptick in such violence.

For the study, researchers looked at a survey of 20,000 people in England and Wales between 2004 and 2011, about 5 percent of whom experienced abuse. (A third of those who reported abuse were men in either homosexual or heterosexual relationships; the rest were women. The men were more likely to be subject to verbal, rather than physical, abuse.) The authors correlated that information with unemployment rates by county to determine whether the economic picture in a given area influenced rates of intimate-partner violence.

The results showed that the 3.7 percentage point increase in male unemployment during the time caused a decline in the incidence of domestic abuse by 12 percent. Meanwhile, the 3 percentage point increase in female unemployment increased domestic violence by 10 percent. The correlation held for all kinds of abuse, but it was stronger for physical violence.

Though it's not proven, the theory that Jonathan Wadsworth, a University of London economist and study co-author, suggested to explain the phenomenon is that when male unemployment in an area is high, more men -- having either lost their jobs or fearing job loss -- are likely to try to stick with their partners in order to ensure some semblance of income stability. And to keep their partners from leaving them, those that have abusive tendencies are more likely to abstain from violent behavior. Meanwhile, when female unemployment is high, women might similarly be less likely to leave men who are predisposed to abuse, and so reports of domestic violence would rise.

To be clear, it's not that the abusive person is lashing out specifically because their partner is unemployed -- just that an area's job prospects alter the likelihood that one of the partners will stay in the relationship.

"What we can't say unequivocally is that if you experience unemployment, it's more likely to make you abusive," Wadsworth explained "It's that if the job prospects in your area are bad, it's less likely that you'll leave."

Though the results are based on U.K. data, they likely apply to other Western nations where divorce and separation aren't taboo. Though the findings probably wouldn't hold for countries in the Middle East and North Africa -- where both female unemployment is high and divorce is frowned upon -- they do shed light on the one aspect of the gender dynamics of European countries that are suffering through a seemingly endless slump.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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