Viral Violence: Flatten the Curve on Domestic Violence Too

By Barbie Brashear, Elizabeth Gregory, Alicia Nuzzie

This article appeared online in the Houston Chronicle April 6, 2020.

While the coronavirus quarantine challenges us all on many levels, it has particularly stark consequences for people, largely women and children, who are locked in with abusers with no exit.

These include both victims in long-term abusive relationships who formerly got work breaks and now are worse off, and people newly victimized given the new pressures and close quarters. The combination of economic precarity, anxiety about the future and kids at home 24/7 amplifies stress across the board. 

Currently there are six domestic violence shelters in the greater Harris County/Houston area. This means our community regularly has under 450 beds designated to individuals and their children who are fleeing violence. These are full (as they have been for years). In the past two weeks, Houston has had two known domestic violence homicides and sadly, this number is expected to rise. The Houston Area Women’s Center shared with us that their number of daily calls has risen roughly 40% since the COVID-19 emergency (even with abusers within earshot) and the proportion of those calls requesting immediate shelter has risen from a norm of 48% of calls per day in 2019, to an average of 62% of calls per day since COVID-19. With abuse surging, only a limited set can find refuge. And many victims can’t reach out. Many don’t report because they sense that nothing will really change, and if they do report, it might only make things worse. 

We know that natural disasters increase levels of domestic violence. Clearly the COVID-19 emergency is structured to up that effect, which will worsen as the quarantine continues.  Economic violence trickles down to those most at risk, but the ripple effects of violence and trauma affect everyone in the community eventually. This viral violence can itself be considered a severe public health issue, and it deserves similar all-hands-on-deck community attention.

While the many domestic violence agencies do yeoman’s work in the face of great adversity and are used to working under-resourced and under-staffed, during times of crisis it becomes even more apparent that they are stretched thin and they can no longer do it alone. Understanding the seriousness of this issue, assessing needs, and working on a systems-level coordinated County/Municipal response is necessary.

Jurisdictions around the globe are innovating in the face of this challenge, and we can learn and innovate too. In France, now-empty hotels are providing additional refuge spots, and they’ve located community touchpoints for help requests in the few places where most people still go, like groceries and pharmacies. In Spain if victims are accompanied by their abusers, and therefore can’t ask directly in pharmacies, they can give a code word to call the police. In Italy, instead of forcing victims to leave their homes, abusers now must leave. 

Similar actions would be boons here, and to supervise and coordinate these and other interventions, as well as interactions among existent agencies, our region would greatly benefit from having the domestic violence community at the table in planning to make structural and policy decisions with the best interests of victims in mind.

Many major cities like New York City, Chicago and even Dallas, have city and county government leadership in discussions about ways to tackle this issue through a coordinated community response. Right now, the city and county have liaisons for education, homelessness, sex trafficking and criminal justice within their administrations. When will domestic violence be added to their prioritization? 

Until someone is hired in each administration, we can begin to tackle domestic violence by bringing together all the players who touch the problem — shelters, law enforcement, the courts, the medical community, the district attorney’s office, charitable foundations, victim services, school districts, even the morgue. We should also include others not typically brought into the conversation — the criminal justice reform community, the homelessness coalition and the gun safety community — with a mandate to put bureaucratic and political issues aside and quickly and efficiently develop and pass solid policies that prioritize the needs of the vulnerable and coordinate the efforts of all agencies to that end.

This global challenge offers the Houston and Harris County community and our leaders the opportunity to stand up together, innovate proactively, and flatten the curve on violence too.

Brashear is the executive director and Nuzzie is the director of strategic partnerships at the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council. Gregory is the director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Houston.


Fertility in Free Fall?

For the 12th year in a row, births and birth rates are down overall and among all age groups under 35. 2018 births to teens were down 7% from 2017, as they also were in 2016–bringing the teen rate down 58% since 2007–from 41.5 births / thousand teens 15-19, to a mere 17.4! Teens, apparently, don’t want to have kids these days (did they ever, really?). And neither, apparently, do 20-24 year olds, whose birth rate is down 4% again this year, bringing their total decline to 36% since the start of the recession in December 2007. You can see the sharp falls reflected in the second and third groups of columns in the chart below. Rates fell 3% for women 25-29 (another record low) , and 1% for women 30-34.

On the other hand, rates rose for women 35+–including a 1% rise for women 35-39, a 2% rise for women 40-44, and while the rate for women 45+ stayed the same at 0.9 births per 1000 women 45-49 (since the number overall is very low–at 9,572), the number of births in this set increased by 3% over 2017. So the ripple-forward pattern of delay continues, though we’ll have to wait a decade or two to see whether the younger women refraining from childbirth today have numbers of children equal to or fewer than generations past did, by the time they “complete their fertility” at about 45 (for the most part).

The total number of births in 2018 was the lowest since 1986, at 3,788,235. The total fertility rate (aka the replacement rate) fell to 1.728 estimated total births per woman (2.05 is considered the generational replacement rate). Women’s new average age at first birth, though it will not be reported officially until the Final 2018 births report in Fall 2019, has clearly risen from its 2017 high (which was 26.8 years old)–to something like or surpassing 27.

See the post below for reflections on why this fall continues. Might there be connections between the ongoing decline and the current anti-abortion push? You be the judge.


Women Starting Fewer Families in 2017

Today’s CDC Final Birth Data for 2017 revises the Preliminary report (below): the birth rate is at a new low, but not quite as low as thought; it’s 60.3 births / 1000 (rather than 60.2), down 2%.* Here’s the revised chart:

Today’s report confirms that birth rates are falling among 15-39 year olds, and details that the trend to decline in the number of people starting families (as opposed to expanding them) is speeding up.  First births are down by 3.4% from 2016 (that rate is falling faster than the overall decline in births).**

As a result, the age at first birth has risen to a new high, at 26.8 (up from 26.6 in 2016 and 25.0 in 2007). That breaks down by race as: 24.8 for Hispanic women, 24.9 for non-Hispanic black women, 27.6 for non-Hispanic white women, and 30.3 for non-Hispanic Asian women.   See post below for discussion of why (lack of childcare support for families and improved access to birth control for teens are big factors). 

*Rather than down 3% in the provisional report.

**That’s a fall of 7.65% among 15-19 yos, 2.9% among 20-24 yos, 4.42% among 25-29 yos, 2% among 30-34 yos, and 0.85% among 35-39 yos.


What’s Pushing Births to 30-Year Low, & Rates Down among All Ages Except 40+?

What does it mean for a country when nobody (or a fast declining number) is having kids?

Most clearly it means a smaller workforce on the horizon (especially when combined with cuts to immigration), which could be good if that workforce is super-efficient and augmented by robots and computers. Not so good if you’re looking to support a big group of retirees on the social security payments of the new few, or if you want those few to provide care for the retirees or to grow the economy through ongoing purchases (which has historically included things related to family building, like diapers, kid clothes, strollers and houses).

Today the CDC reports that in 2017 the number of births fell to a 30-year low at 3,853,472, and the overall US birth rate fell by 3% since 2016, to 60.2 births per 1000 women ages 15-44.  The teen birth rate (15-19) FELL 7% since 2016.  That brings it to a total fall since 2007 of 55%.  The rates for women 20-24 and 25-29 both fell 4%, the rate for women 30-34 fell 2% breaking its pattern of rise since 2012, and the rate for women 35-39 fell 1%, after 6 years of rise since 2011.  Only women 40-44 saw a rise in rate, of 2%, to a new high of 11.6/1000.  Women 45-54 held steady at a rate of 0.9 births per 1,000 fertile women.

The current pattern of decline began with the recession in 2008, but has continued beyond that.  The usual suspects in the causal side have been: lack of a support infrastructure for families, which means people feel they can’t afford kids until later and IMPROVED birth control. More reliable birth control especially explains the drop among women in their teens and early twenties, since about 45% of US pregnancies were unintended in 2011 (58% of which ended in a birth), with women 15-24 having the highest rates of unintended pregnancies.  Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives are radically changing that dynamic.

The continued decline among young women would seem to reflect decisions to delay in order to have more time and money to invest in their own educations and career starts if they aren’t caring for kids. But the birth rates among women in their 30s were rising since the end of the recession, so why the sudden reversal there?

Is there a Trump effect — or other shock factor introduced since the end of 2016 — that might explain the swerve in the pattern in 2017?  Are women (and their partners) more worried than formerly about things like maintaining their career paths and salary trajectories (often sidetracked by kids), about the overall economy, about the lack of a social support infrastructure for women who are mothers, about seeking to include women’s voices in civic and business policy making (also often sidetracked by kids), about robots taking the jobs of tomorrow, about the threat of nuclear war, or that climate will change the human future radically for the worse? Variously strong issues individually, as a group these could be overwhelming for young people trying to plan ahead.

The NY Times ran a story yesterday on the endemic US workplace bias against mothers, urging women to start a #momstoo anti-bias movement. This movement could get a platform through the birth rate decline, which should open discussion of the pros and cons. If there’s interest among policy makers in raising the birth rates, finding ways to allow women to combine motherhood with active workforce and civic lives seems key–through programs like paid family leave; good, affordable childcare for all; pay equity for mothers; and school hours synchronous with the work day.

Another factor in the mix might be that we’re seeing people question their desire or need to have kids, which for ages (literally) have been the default effect of having sex, but are no longer.  And now that not having kids has become more socially acceptable, do families become less attractive, either per se or (again) due to the lack of social supports?  Over the years we’ll get to find out what people without kids find to do with all the time that people have historically spent with their relatives. Will it be work or play? –and will that make them more or less happy? Or are they all waiting to start families till they’re 40? Stay tuned for ongoing change.

Related letter, posted on


Low fertility rate hits the bottom line, at Toys R Us.

ToysRUs’s Baby Problem  Population by age

The effect of our lowered fertility rate is being felt at baby stores.  This week Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy, blaming the rate, and over the coming years there will be ripple effects in many other businesses. This is just one point of reckoning society will face over the decline in births — and its effect on domestic products of all kinds.

There’s a lot to talk about — including a rethinking of what people want to do with their lives (many people seem to be questioning whether they want or need kids), how the population impacts our planet and resources, what jobs remain for humans after the robot revolution, what new jobs and activities we invent to put all our know how to best use, whether and at what rate (and by what means) older childless people decide to bear in their later lives, etc.

Stay tuned for an ongoing debate.

**Though the Washington Post story emphasizes the demographics behind the closure, others emphasize that the company was badly affected by its takeover by private equity firms Bain Capital, KKR and Vornado Realty Trust, which “loaded up the chain with $6.6 billion in debt,” per the American Prospect.


Are Women Full Citizens?: The Abortion Debate and the “Gifts” of Life and Poverty

Here’s a link to a new essay I was invited to contribute to an issue of NANO on Gift Economies. It explores the role that fertility plays in the way/s that women can participate in policy making in all levels of society (past and present). What do you think?

This essay explores fertility’s impact on economics and the gendered relations of power among humans in patriarchy. By definition, patriarchs rule through fertility—their status depends upon the exclusion of women from policymaking by means of childbearing. When forced to bear and rear early, women receive limited education and have neither skills nor time to object. The availability of birth control and abortion transforms this situation. This essay argues that anti-reproductive-choice arguments based on the premise that an unborn potential child has received an individual “gift of life” which it is the mother’s duty to host occlude the way that the arrival at maturity of human lives depends on the ongoing gift of parents’ (principally mothers’) time and energy. When this “gift” is coerced, it blocks the innovative participation and skills development of huge portions of the population and may cause the impoverishment of the family, including parents, older children and other relatives, into which the new child arrives.

ARE WOMEN FULL CITIZENS? The Abortion Debate and the “Gifts” of Life and Poverty

Humans exist in network, interdepending mutually, parts of a social and physical ecology in which what one does affects what others may or may not do. Humans depend upon the circulation of what may be called gifts from the earth, which provide physical sustenance, and from the cultures in which they are raised, which provide them with language and the storehouse of human technology and skills. Caregivers provide young humans with time, nourishment, and knowledge that are essential to their development and which may also be viewed as gifts (the term caregiver implies it). Adults and children both receive framework gifts from their cultures, including shared narratives (providing a sense of meaning and direction), and infrastructure (like roads and market systems). All humans then support others with ongoing cultural gifts of knowledge, technology and materials that pass through them and circulate back to others. All gifts are embedded in social and physical contexts, never the independent contribution of one individual to another. … MORE


Highest Birth Rate Now 30-34 / Ripple Effects of Delay / Birth Rates Still Falling

This year, the annual CDC birth data update again generates a post very like the one last year and several years prior. See parts 2 & 3 of this post’s title. And this year for the first time, as the title’s first part suggests, the birth rate for women aged 30-34 surpassed that for women 25-29, as a result of the ongoing rise since 2012 of births to all women 30 and over and of the ongoing fall (since 2007) in births to all women 29 and under, especially teenagers (down by halffrom 41.5 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 2007 to 20.3 in 2016!).

Rates to women 35-39 began to rise in 2011, and rates to women 40 and up never fell and continue to rise. When the recession hit and birth rates to young women plummeted, it was predictable that eventually at least some of those women would start having kids–and, inevitably, they would be older at that point.  That’s the ripple effect of delay, on display in the chart below. 



About 10 years after the rates began plummeting among the young, we are now seeing a rising tide of births to the women (and men) who delayed.  Stay tuned until later in the year for a full report on how many of these women are having first births, at what ages.  The average age at first birth is rising – but the specifics are not yet out (it was 26.4 (Table I-1) in 2015, so is likely not suddenly “around 28” as suggested by Bloomberg and Slate — the 2015 average age for all births was 28.5).

This year we have Beyoncé (35) and Amal Clooney (39) as poster women: both later mothers having twins.


Related stories:  (“Women Are Changing American Birth Rates in a Totally Unprecedented Way”)

& (“For the First Time Ever, Thirty-Something Women Are Having More Babies Than Their Twenty-Something Counterparts”)

Bloomberg (“Women in 30s Now Having More Babies Than Younger Moms in U.S.”)

NB: The Bloomberg and Slate titles are misleading.  Only the birthrate for women 30-34 (102.6) has surpassed the rate for women 25-29 (101.9) (still noteworthy!).  But women 20-24 still have a higher rate (73.7 and falling) than women 35-39 (52.6 and rising), and without data on how many women there are in each age sector, you can’t tell who is having more babies accurately.