Domestic Violence – False Economy

Imagine we could rescue a thousand people from domestic violence. What could be a more worthwhile use of the power of economics?

Mainstream economic analyses of household spending are known as ‘bargaining models’. There are differences of opinion between members of the same household – for example, what foods are purchased in family trips to the supermarket, or whether the couple will watch a romantic or action movie. The standard economic “bargaining” model assumes each spouse ‘invests’ love and companionship: investing less in the relationship (offering less love and support) or, in the extreme, divorce or separation, if s/he becomes convinced the relationship is not in their long-term best interest.

If there is one main earner in the partnership, we would expect him/her to have most control, because they have a more “credible threat” of leaving their spouse/partner. Perhaps the other spouse/partner might thrive after divorce, if they can build a “new” and better life. If they keep the children, they may get state benefits after divorce/separation. Or perhaps they won’t thrive: a person deserted by their long-term partner may feel their life has been destroyed. As well as emotional pain, they may lose financially – perhaps they can no longer afford to send their children to the same school, and/or need to move to a cheaper area (and worse accommodation) as their income falls compared to living in a household with two incomes, or one large income. For some separated parents, not having access to their children (except weekly visits) may seem appalling, if they are used to a conventional family life.

Imagine a partner is prepared to use violence. Rather than bargaining, a person who happens to be strong (and prepared to use violence) may get their own way. For example, if someone wants to use household money intended for children’s clothing to get drunk, it may be quicker to threaten violence than to threaten divorce. If so, a spouse/partner might abdicate responsibility for the household – and get their spouse/partner to pay. This won’t work forever, presumably: unless the heavy drinker’s spouse/partner is very rich and very forgiving, their descent into alcoholism won’t be supported for long. This is a negative-sum game: by using violence, the violent person could get a short-term gain but at the cost of the relationship, so both spouses end up less happy. Gwagwa[1]
reported evidence on this in South Africa; Jan Pahl[2] analysed UK data and came to a similar conclusion.

Researchers estimate that a billion women worldwide are victims of domestic violence: “At least 1 in 3 women, or up to one billion women, have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. Usually, the abuser is a member of her own family or someone known to her”.[i] Many men are also victims of domestic violence[ii]. Domestic violence also costs society. In terms of criminal justice costs, physical health costs, mental health costs and increased dependency on benefits, domestic violence costs us all.

In bargaining models of household behaviour, having a credible threat is important. A victim of domestic violence needs to have a choice, so she (and her children, if she has any) can move away from her partner. Many women can afford to leave, or have family and friends to stay with; but some victims have nowhere else to live, and no credible threat. Refuges for battered women (in the UK and other countries) can reduce the incidence and impact of domestic violence; as well as providing support for service users; the very existence of refuge adds another bargaining chip to a potential victim in a couple’s power bargain.

By changing the incentive and support structure, women’s refuges have been estimated to save the taxpayer £3·54 for every £1·00 spent . While yet more funding is needed, paradoxically, funding is being cut for women and children. Similarly, recourse to legal proceedings, for example in requesting injunctions or divorce proceedings, will become more difficult for victims if planned cuts to legal aid go ahead.

Cutting access to justice is false economy; in the longer term, such cuts will degrade our society and wind up costing us even more money in future. However, there is a more fundamental issue at stake: There are some issues where the bottom line is not, and should not be, purely financial – domestic violence is not and will never be acceptable. On balance, “there’s no justice, there’s just austerity” would make a poor slogan for a civilised society.

John Simister


1 Gwagwa, N. N. (1998), “Money as a source of tension”, in Larsson A., Mapetla M. & Schlyter A. (eds.), Changing gender relations in Southern Africa: issues of urban life, Lesotho: National University of Lesotho.

2 Pahl, J. (1985) “Violent Husbands and Abusive Wives – A Longitudinal Study”, in Private Violence and Public Policy, Pahl, J. (ed.), Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, Boston, MA. Abstract available here.

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