To Reimagine Intervention Strategies: The Political Economy of Domestic Violence

Deborah Weissman

In recent years, mainstream anti-domestic violence programs have moved away from a fixation on the criminal justice system to undertake economic justice initiatives designed to “respond to, address, and prevent financial abuse” related to domestic violence.  The shift reflects the growing realization that strategies of remedy through the penal state have tended to fracture the domestic violence movement and marginalize disenfranchised populations, particularly poor communities and communities of color.  As programs have endeavored to refocus their efforts, advocates have properly identified consumer credit as a critical issue to address, as credit problems are a frequent, if underappreciated, effect of domestic violence. Indeed, as consumer debt has become a way of life, credit problems affect a victim’s chances of purchasing or renting a home, obtaining utilities, finding affordable car and home insurance rates, and accessing employment opportunities. The solution to these economic challenges lies within the realm of political economy. An LPE approach would conceptualize how current political and economic arrangements affect victims—as well as abusive partners—and thereby to assess justice strategies in relation to structural capitalist economic modalities.

In this mode, efficacious remedies for domestic violence extend beyond individual-level interventions. Studies have demonstrated the effects of neighborhood economic instability on domestic violence and reveal that the dynamic of domestic violence is often related to local neighborhood factors including poverty, unemployment, and economic uncertainty. In response, scholars such as Angela Harris have suggested that “anti-violence theorizing and advocacy must take an integrated approach” and focus on “the macro level of political and economic structures” when addressing gender violence. Other organizations, such as the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, have sought to reconstruct an understanding of indebtedness and create a political identity around “debtor” to organize against predatory lending and other exploitative practices that characterize the personal finance industry. These efforts importantly recognize that when addressing economic abuse and consumer debt-related problems, domestic violence prevention requires re-configuration of consumer debt structure to reduce economic strain on victims and perpetrators. Prevention also requires that advocates address the role of corporate actors in facilitating economic instability.

In contrast to an LPE approach, traditional domestic violence advocacy has been often circumscribed by a narrow focus on individual circumstances insufficient to address the root causes of violence.  Some national initiatives appeal to neoliberal consumer practices as a means to end gender violence and rely on market strategies, particularly the practice of branding and shopping. For example, a popular anti-domestic violence campaign, known as NO MORE, joins domestic violence and sexual assault programs with the Department of Justice and corporations to promote solutions within the realm of the power of purchases and the charity of the rich and famous.  The campaign invites supporters to paint their fingernails purple, host summer bake sales with lemonade, and make purchases from the NO MORE store: caps, t-shirts, posters, post cards, back pack pins, water bottles, and tote bags.  Similarly, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has summoned its supporters to shop women-owned businesses as a remedy to end domestic violence.

Mainstream advocates’ primary strategy to address the economic consequences of domestic violence has been corporate financial literacy education programs to assist victims with budgeting and credit problems.  These initiatives—perhaps because they are relatively new—are imperfectly suited to prevent domestic violence and enhance economic security for victims.  The curricula rely on strategies of the personal financial industry, which posits that individuals in their capacity as consumers must create their own wealth and exercise responsibility for managing assets.  The strategy is based on a flawed premise of a victim empowerment folklore within a culture of self-help that disregards the structural dimensions of poverty and debt.  These programs preach parsimony in the form of reduced spending and increased frugality, a politics that has proven impracticable if not impossible, especially to poor families.  They advise women to “avoid eating out,” “limit treats,” and “find cheaper alternatives in household purchases” or to sell caramel apples at local events to increase their income in order to pay debts.  The initiatives ignore the ways that contemporary American political economy burdens victims with the costs of their “empowerment” through economic modes that benefit financial markets.

Similarly, abuser treatment programs designed to hold abusers accountable and support victims have acknowledged that economic strain and unemployment act as demographic risk factors in domestic violence.  These programs, however, were established by domestic violence advocates as part of an increasing focus on the penal state for remedies and are limited by notions of criminality. Most treatment programs fail to address joblessness and economic strain as a means to the mitigate abuse, a failure that in part can be attributed to statutes that establish program standards and derive their logic from the criminal justice system.  Unemployment is addressed as an idiosyncratic criminogenic factor, and thus individuals do not receive support confronting structural obstacles to finding and maintain work.  The Center for Disease Control’s compilation of batterer treatment programs laws similarly fails to address employment-related assistance, financial difficulties, and credit and indebtedness concerns.   Efforts to ameliorate economic abuse suffered by victims are unlikely to succeed in a paradigm that fails to incorporate the abuser himself as a victim of economic adversity, including predatory lending, credit discrimination, and other unlawful credit practices.  This is not to attribute domestic violence entirely to economic dislocation experienced by perpetrators, or course.  To privilege patriarchy as the dominant paradigm with which to address domestic violence, however, implies the need to recognize the cultural environment and economic circumstances to which male privilege is subject.

In a forthcoming article, I address some of the emerging approaches and intervention designed to ameliorate domestic economic abuse without resorting to market logic. One such effort is the Center for Survivor Agency and Justice (CSAJ), which focuses on the relationship between poverty and domestic violence and the remediation of economic abuse.  CSAJ recognizes the need to confront inequitable laws as a means of structural reform on behalf of domestic violence victims and address inequality and poverty more generally. To that end, CSAJ enacts a law and political economy approach to civil litigation on behalf of victims of domestic violence.  They address the structural economic hardships that contribute to domestic violence in the first place with an emphasis on remedying the exploitative practices of banking and creditor institutions.  CSAJ also educates and litigates to remedy predatory and other wrongful debt collection practices, credit and housing discrimination matters, as well as federal tax advocacy.  This approach to domestic violence helps to illuminate that predatory lending is, in the words of Raúl Carrillo, “not merely private domination, but a systemic legal and cultural phenomenon.”  It further contributes to a political economic understanding of “debt as a nexus of social control” as Luke Herrine has observed, fully applicable to the plight of domestic violence victims suffering economic abuse, particularly in the form of indebtedness.

There are also some glimpses of the potential for changes within abuser treatment programs that incorporate political economic perspectives as part of programming.  The Alma Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which works with men with a history of domestic violence, includes in its core programs social services and employment-related assistance for participants.  Just as importantly, new studies have recognized the importance of focusing on social justice initiatives, including economic resources and employment assistance to batterers in order to address abuser behavior.  In some instances, abuser treatment program staff have called for the development of new principles that deemphasize penal approaches and focus on revising the curriculum to include race, class, and other intersectional oppressions.

Efforts to address domestic violence requires new forms of advocacy to embrace a vision for socioeconomic rights and a rejection of the reliance on corporate-sponsored and market-oriented “solutions” that in the end are illusory.  The complexity of domestic violence as a social issue requires strategies within the realm of political economy that resist the constraints of neoliberalism in order to improve the circumstances for battered persons.

Deborah M. Weissman is the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law