The hidden impact of the cost of living crisis on survivors of domestic abuse

The cost of living crisis is estimated to push 71 million people around the world into poverty [1]; they will be grappling with the soaring costs of food, fuel and energy. For the 736 million women experiencing domestic abuse globally [2], restricted access to economic resources and limited financial freedom has the potential to worsen their experience of abuse and block access to support.


The promise of economic recovery from the pandemic and efforts to address ballooning gender gaps and spiking levels of domestic abuse have, unfortunately, not materialised as hoped. Prices for food commodities are at their highest levels since 2008, increasing by 50 percent since January of this year, and the rise in energy prices over the past two years have been the largest since the 1973 oil crisis [3]. Inflation surges, a ripple effect of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, are paralleled by a decline in macroeconomic conditions and household welfare that is estimated to push 71 million people into poverty worldwide [4].


So, what does this mean for those experiencing domestic abuse? In theory, a decline in macroeconomic conditions has both the potential to increase levels of abuse and the severity of abuse experienced for several reasons. The first assumption is that financial strain and uncertainty at the household level increases stress within intimate partner relations which could act as a risk factor for abuse. It is also logical to assume that financial insecurity reduces the mobility of survivors and their ability to leave an abusive relationship due to the immediate and longstanding costs accrued from moving. Lastly, there is the potential impact to frontline services who incur greater costs to running their services whilst also managing an increase in people seeking frontline services. This strain makes vital services less available to survivors and traps them with their abuser.


A lack of streamlined data


Research exploring the relationship between economic conditions and levels of abuse has produced mixed results. There are some studies that maintain that political and economic structures, especially economic strain and uncertainty, are clear demographic risk factors for domestic violence [5]; a US study found that declining economic conditions during the Great Recession were paralleled by an increase in men's controlling behaviour in intimate partner relationships and that mothers experiencing unemployment were about twice as likely to be the victim of violence or controlling behaviour [6]. However, they found no link between unemployment and violent behaviour on its own. Authors also highlighted key gender discrepancies that revealed male unemployment lead to a greater prevalence of abuse. This is consistent with 'male-backlash theory', which posits higher levels of unemployment amongst men undermine feelings of control and security and therefore a greater need to exert control in their relationships, therefore triggering a spike in coercive and controlling behaviour during periods of unemployment [7]. This study made similar conclusions; they found that a domestic abuse rate of 4.7 percent in relationships where the male partner was consistently employed, which rose to 12.3 percent for couples where the male partner experienced two or more periods of unemployment [8].


Alternatively, researchers such as Professor Sonia Bhalotra adopted the lens of household bargaining to argue that male unemployment actually lowers the risk of domestic violence as their partnership becomes an important form of economic support which may help to 'tame' controlling behaviour [9]. At the same time, this research finds that women's unemployment raises levels of domestic abuse as options outside of the relationship are weakened and she may be more likely to tolerate abuse. This study found similar results; although researchers found a net zero effect of the overall rate of unemployment on domestic abuse, their research did reveal that a 3.7 percent increase in male unemployment caused a decline in the incidence of domestic abuse by up to 12 percent, whereas a 3 percent increase in female unemployment cause an increase by up to 10 percent. This, the authors conclude, suggests that an increase in male unemployment and decrease in female unemployment improves women's relative bargaining power and therefore reduces the risk of abusive behaviour [10].


Inconsistencies in research findings makes it very difficult to paint an accurate picture of the extent of financial hardship on the risk and severity of abuse, plus these studies have their limitations as tools for predicting the impact of the current cost of living crisis. Firstly, most conclusions assume a dynamic of women-as-victims versus men-as-perpetrators within a heterosexual relationship. The reality is that there is not such a clear binary; domestic abuse affects 1 in 6 men worldwide (compared to 1 in 4 women) and many men face additional barriers accessing vital services and support due to stereotypes surrounding who experiences abuse [11]. Furthermore, these studies mostly use employment status and levels of unemployment as a predictor for abuse. This makes sense in the context of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, however the current cost of living crisis is not marked by spiking levels of unemployment but rather a decline in living standards and inflationary surges on essential items. At an individual level, research has shown a higher prevalence of domestic abuse amongst couples who feel financial strain (9.5 percent) compared to couples who feel low levels of financial strain (2.7 percent) [12]. Here, financial insecurity, poverty, and wages relative to cost of living, rather than levels of unemployment, may serve as more effective predictors for abuse. It is also worth noting that the broader context of the cost of living crisis is a global pandemic that triggered an estimated 15 million cases of domestic abuse for every 12 weeks of lockdown [13]. This study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on levels of domestic abuse revealed the largest increase in intimate partner violence was amongst couples who were experiencing economic stress (25-33 percent increase, compared to an overall increase of 23 percent compared to pre-lockdown levels) [14]. The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic both on financial insecurity and levels of domestic abuse should not be underestimated.


The final challenge when quantifying the impact of financial insecurity on domestic abuse is that it is difficult to separate incidents where insecurity is a trigger for abuse, and where it is a consequence of existing abuse. Economic abuse affects roughly 1 in 6 women in the UK [15]. It rarely occurs in isolation from other forms of abuse but it is present to varying degrees in an estimated 95 percent of domestic abuse cases [16]. It is a form of abuse that controls survivors' access to economic and financial resources and its impact can be devastating. Victims may experience a loss of earnings, it might affect their employment status or their ability to find work, or they may have large amounts of debt that they are unable to repay. Ultimately, this kind of abuse will destabilise victims, often for a prolonged period of time, and often continues even after someone has left their abuser. It is therefore likely that the relationship between financial insecurity and domestic abuse is reciprocal in nature and that it is both a risk factor for abuse and a consequence of economic abuse. Research conducted by Women's Aid revealed that two thirds of domestic abuse survivors said that their abuser was using the cost of living crisis as a tool for coercive control to restrict and control their access to money [17]. For those already experiencing abuse, it is not difficult to see how an abuser may manipulate the cost of living crisis to exert further control over finances and economic resources. Declining macroeconomic conditions, therefore, only exacerbate the financial impacts of abuse on the victim so that creating independence from their abuser, and rebuilding and repairing from the abuse long-term, is extremely difficult.


What can frontline charities reveal about the impact of the cost of living crisis?


Reports from frontline services and charities working directly with victims can help to shed light on an issue that has so far produced largely inconclusive data. UK charity Women's Aid issued a survey in June 2022 to survivors of domestic abuse to assess exactly how the cost of living crisis was impacting survivors, which revealed that almost all survivors - 96 percent - had seen a negative impact on the amount of money available to them as the cost of living increases [18]. The consequences of this include:


Reduced ability to leave an abuser.

Financial insecurity makes it very difficult for survivors to leave an abusive relationship or household. Financial security and access to economic resources, especially housing, is a major determinant for how long a survivor stays in an abusive relationship and therefore the level of risk they are exposed to over time. The cost of living crisis is already impacting survivors' mobility and ability to escape an abuser, with 73 percent of Women's Aid survey respondents saying that the cost of living crisis has either prevented them from leaving or made it much harder for them to leave. 67 percent said this was because of the immediate costs of leaving, 69 percent were not able to afford ongoing living costs on a single income, and 50 percent were not able to support their children [19]. As the percentage of one's income spent on food, bills and fuel increases, this leaves less room for manoeuvre to manage the additional costs associated with leaving an abuser.


Increased time spent at home.

67 percent of survivors of abuse said they were forced to spend more time at home with their abuser because they could not afford activities outside of their home [20], creating added risk with increasing time spent in close proximity to their abuser. This mirrors the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, albeit to a lesser extent, where restrictions to mobility increase time spent with the abuser and increase exposure to and severity of abuse experienced.


Debt as a result of economic abuse.

Surviving Economic Abuse reports that 50 percent of women who have experienced domestic abuse had been made to take out a loan or buy something on credit when they did not want to. 43 percent said their partner had built up debt in their name and 33 percent said that their partner had taken out a loan or brought something using credit in their name without their permission [21]. Many victims of coerced debt accrued as a result of financial abuse will also be struggling with debt as a result of the spiking cost of living; figures from the Jubilee Debt Campaign revealed that the number of households struggling with heavy debt burden increased by one third in 2021 alone [22]. Large amounts of debt accrued from multiple streams may mean that victims are using available money to pay back debt, which also has the potential to impact their credit rating and restrict their options for housing. More than one third of domestic abuse survivors report becoming homeless as a result of trying to end an abusive relationship [23].


Declining mental health.

The impact of the cost of living crisis on the mental health and wellbeing of victims is significant; 83 percent of respondents to the Women's Aid study said that the spike in the cost of living has had a negative impact on their wellbeing and mental health [24].


The added costs for minority and marginalised women


We know that the cost of living crisis is having a disproportionate impact on marginalised populations, who already face additional barriers to seeking support for domestic abuse [25]. Migrant women are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks because of existing barriers to vital services. Policies such as the No Recourse to Public Funds condition means that migrant women on a spousal, student or visitor visa, for example, do not have access to key welfare benefits including income support, jobseeker’s allowance, and local authority housing. This exclusion from the social security system and limited access to an independent income means that migrant women are already subject to higher rates of poverty that make escaping an abuser extremely difficult. For those who can’t work or utilise social security measures, it is also difficult to seek refuge as many shelters rely on rental income. Southall Black Sisters report that, in 2019/20, just 4% of refuge spaces were accessible to women with no recourse to public funds [26]. The Support for Migrant Victims pilot provides support for up to 500 migrant victims of domestic abuse who are subject to the NRPF rule, however limited funding means that this is not accessible to all women who need it [27].


The impact on frontline charities' ability to provide services


Frontline services and shelters, not yet recovered from spiking numbers of people seeking support during the pandemic, are also reporting a significant impact on their service provision as a result of the cost of living crisis. Domestic abuse charity Hestia reported a 30 percent increase in demand for their domestic abuse refuge spaces and support in London in the first quarter of 2022 as a result of the cost of living crisis [28]. Families are also having to stay in refuges for longer as the cost of rehoming becomes unmanageable; it is estimated to be £5000 more costly than it was two years ago to rehome survivors of domestic abuse [29]. On top of an increase in demand for services, refuges are also having to use vital funding reserves to account for rising costs of bills and utilities at their shelters. One refuge reported to Women’s Aid that;


“We have just renewed our energy costs with our bulk supplier and the costs have increased by 300%. We built a 45% increase into our budgets, but the 300% increase has completely blown our financial plan for this year. We would normally pass increases on to our residents in the refuge… but this would not be affordable – it would stop victims from moving in to refuges” [30]



Reports from frontline services and charities, therefore, can help to alleviate some of the inconsistencies found in research conducted on levels of domestic abuse during an economic downturn. Their accounts reveal a concerning impact on those experiencing domestic abuse whereby financial insecurity and stress is exacerbating experiences of economic abuse and restricts survivors' ability to leave and rebuild from abuse. To limit the damage, a gender-sensitive approach to policy making and economic recovery that offers provisions designed to alleviate the impact of the crisis on survivors of abuse is vital.


We believe that businesses have a key role to play in identifying signs of domestic abuse amongst their employees and their ability to offer support in times of financial insecurity. As part of our plan for UN 16 Days of Activism, we are hosting a panel discussion with industry experts on 'Domestic Abuse and the Cost of Living Crisis: How can employers support survivors at work?' on Friday 25 November. Register for the event here.



Written by Ruby Brooks, Research Executive at Thrive Future


 


References


[1] UNDP, 'Addressing the cost-of-living crisis in developing countries: Poverty and vulnerability projections and policy responses'

[2] UN Women, 'Facts and figures: Ending violence against women'

[3] UN Women, 'Global gendered impacts of the Ukraine crisis on energy access and food security and nutrition'

[4] UNDP, 'Addressing the cost-of-living crisis in developing countries: Poverty and vulnerability projections and policy responses'

[5] LPE Project, 'To reimagine intervention strategies: The political economy of domestic violence'

[6] Schneider, S., Harknett, K. and McLanahan, S., 2017. 'Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession'

[7] Schneider, S., Harknett, K. and McLanahan, S., 2017. 'Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession'

[8] Renzetti, C., 2014. 'Economic Stress and Domestic Violence'

[9] inews, 2022. 'How the cost of living crisis affects domestic abuse: 'I'd be more secure staying with him than leaving'

[10] Anderberg, D. et al., 2016. 'Unemployment and Domestic Violence: Theory and Evidence'.

[11] ManKind Initiative, Statistics on Male Victims of Domestic Abuse

[12] Renzetti, C., 2014. 'Economic Stress and Domestic Violence'

[13] UNFPA, 2020. 'Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Family Planning and Ending Gender-Based Violence, Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage'

[14] Arenas-Arroyo, E. et al., 2021. 'Intimate partner violence under forced cohabitation and economic stress: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic'