Spotlight: An Interview with Taryn Lindhorst on her Work, "Longitudinal Effects of Domestic Violence on Employment and Welfare Outcomes"

Taryn Lindhorst is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work. Her research interests include topics related to welfare reform and violence against women. She is currently working on a study of the relationship between mental health, domestic violence and economic insecurity though a NIMH Career Development Award. In particular this work will focus on whether material resources mediate the consequences of domestic violence on mental health outcomes. By examining the sequencing of stressful life events, this research will identify critical points in developmental trajectories related to mental health.

The West Coast Poverty Center had the opportunity to ask Professor Lindhorst about her thoughts on the work "Domestic Violence, Employment, and Welfare Outcomes" highlighted in WCPC Poverty Flash 2008-02. This Flash highlights the article "Longitudinal Effects of Domestic Violence on Employment and Welfare Outcomes," published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 22, No. 7 (2007).

Read the press release regarding Professor Lindhorst's related work "Screening for Domestic Violence in Public Welfare Offices" here.


WCPC: How did you become interested in the relationship between domestic violence, employment outcomes, and Welfare outcomes?

Lindhorst: I worked for several years as a social worker in a large public hospital, and many of the women I worked with were poor and struggling with domestic violence. I returned to school to pursue my PhD right as the 1996 welfare reforms were passed. Based on the women I had met through my work in the hospital, I was very concerned about how victims of violence would fare under the new laws. I was especially concerned because I lived in a state (Louisiana) which adopted much shorter time limits and was more punitive towards women who received welfare. I saw that many of the women I worked with could not maintain stable employment because of actions of the abuser, or because of the long-term health and mental health consequences of the abuse. It seemed unrealistic to expect that these women would be able to be successful with the new "Work First" focus adopted under welfare reform.

WCPC: Your data set was longitudinal data for over 200 adolescent mothers from the Seattle area, what was the most interesting or attractive part about working with this particular data?

Lindhorst: One of the problems in researching the effects of violence for poor women is that none of the national longitudinal datasets focused on welfare and employment have asked about violence exposure. Two newer studies, the 3 Cities Study and Fragile Families, have integrated these questions into their data, but they were not available when I was beginning this research. The other problem is that most studies within the violence field are cross-sectional because it is difficult to follow survivors of violence over time. For both these reasons, I jumped at the chance to work with data from a longitudinal research study that was able to successfully follow primarily low-income women for 11 years, and to inquire repeatedly about their violence exposure, employment and welfare use. The Young Women's Health Study has been very successful in its design, follow up and data management, and they have been great to work with!

WCPC: What was the most significant finding to you?

Lindhorst: The most significant finding was that violence exposure had a direct and unmediated effect on the women's level of employment after welfare reform. I think this finding is striking since the majority of studies on the effects of domestic violence on women's employment have not been able to look across the length of time we studied. Our findings support the argument that domestic violence has long-term consequences for some women's economic success. This reality has been under-recognized by policymakers.

WCPC: What questions does this research raise for future inquiry?

Lindhorst: More research is needed on the mechanisms that make employment more difficult for women with a history of victimization. For instance, we do not know from this study whether difficulties in employment stem from continued actions on the part of the abuser (since other data show that women may leave the relationship, but the abusive partner may continue to stalk or harm her), or if difficulties arise because of developmental challenges created for her by the violence. In the paper, we discuss that women who experience violent relationships may become more isolated from social networks that can help them to obtain and maintain employment. If this were true, it would suggest an avenue for intervention to promote women's economic stability.

WCPC: What implications does this study have for policy makers?

Lindhorst: Policymakers need to be aware that poor women who have a history of domestic violence may not be able to be successful in employment without additional supports. For instance, when welfare reform was passed, Congress also passed the Family Violence Amendment to provide additional supports for welfare-reliant women who were victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, services under this amendment have never been fully realized, in large part because of the policy emphasis on decreasing welfare use. All poor women benefit from supports like affordable and accessible child care and educational opportunities. Policymakers can also support the work of programs that serve survivors of domestic violence, by providing assistance for economic training services.