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How a basic income could help stop domestic violence

An unconditional cash transfer program in Kenya found that when people in a relationship–especially women–received extra money, rates of physical and sexual violence declined.

How a basic income could help stop domestic violence
[Photo: vasabii/iStock]

A basic income–a periodic, unconditional cash payment–delivers with it numerous personal benefits to people who receive it. In Finland, a cash-transfer program reduced depression rates among recipients by around 37%. In Ontario, an unofficial analysis of a now-closed pilot found that 88% of people who received monthly payments felt less stressed, and 47% felt less marginalized–on top of having greater access to better food and housing.

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These benefits are significant, and point to the ways that basic income can broadly improve individuals’ livelihoods. But it also, according to new research (not yet peer-reviewed) from Princeton University, could ease difficulties and strife they might experience in relationships with other people.

This is evident in Kenya, where the nonprofit GiveDirectly made unconditional cash transfers to households in the western part of the country between 2011 and 2013. In Kenya, 42% of women between the ages of 20 and 44 reported having experienced physical or sexual violence from their partner. The Princeton team, including professor of psychology and public affairs Johannes Haushofer, set out to study whether the influx of additional financial resources would have an effect on the rate of intimate partner violence among the couples that received the cash transfers. “Violence is pretty strongly correlated with income–poorer families tend to have higher rates of intimate partner violence,” Haushofer says. His team wanted to understand if alleviating poverty would change that.

Broadly, Haushofer and his team discovered that the presence of a basic income correlated with significant declines in rates of violence. In households where women received cash transfers, rates of both physical and sexual violence declined significantly. The researchers focused on violence against women. Compared to the control group, the number of women who reported being kicked, dragged, or beaten by their husbands fell by 51% in women-recipient households. In women-recipient households, incidences of forced sexual acts declined by as much as 66%. In male-recipient households, rates of physical violence fell by around 59%, but reductions in sexual violence were not statistically significant.

“What this suggests is that physical violence is probably used by husbands to extract resources from the wife,” Haushofer says. “When there’s some slack in the household–the money from the transfer can be used to fulfill some of the husbands’ preferences–they don’t engage in that behavior anymore.”

Sexual violence rates did not significantly decline when men received cash transfers. That might indicate, Haushofer says, that sexual violence is not necessarily used as a means of resource extraction, as physical violence is. But money given to women may reduce sexual violence by lowering their tolerance of it. The decline in rates of sexual violence in households where women received money could reflect the fact that the extra payments gave women more leverage to either resist sexual violence or leave the relationship.

Haushofer and his team also found that the basic income payments reduced physical violence and improved empowerment markings even for women who did not receive extra cash, but lived in the same village as others who did.

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“It’s not the case that giving some people in the village money makes everyone richer,” Haushofer says, but rather that the reduction in violence among cash-recipient households may create something of a ripple effect around social norms that encapsulates the whole community. Given the multiple benefits that additional financial resources bring to households coping with violence and poverty, the work of Haushofer and his team creates a compelling case for basic income to play a role in broader violence-prevention measures, like counseling and social support services.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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