Access to legal aid lowers domestic abuse

By LOU MARANO  |  Jan. 8, 2003 at 4:38 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- The only public service that reduces domestic abuse in the long term is women's access to legal aid, the research of two economists indicates.

Services such as shelters have short-term value at the point of crisis, Amy Farmer, associate professor of economics in the University of Arkansas' Sam M. Walton College of Business, said in a phone interview from Fayetteville, Ark. But a U.S. Justice Department study showing a decline in domestic violence during the 1990s drew the wrong conclusion. Hotlines, shelters, safe homes, emergency transportation, and counseling programs did not cause the trend.

"We have a database of exactly what's available in every county in the United States," Farmer told United Press International. "We can look at rates of domestic abuse in each of those counties and control for income, and race and education." She and her colleague, Jill Tiefenthaler -- associate professor of economics at Colgate University -- found that in predicting long-term rates of domestic violence, the only public service variable that mattered is access to legal services.

The results of their research appear in the current issue of Contemporary Economic Policy. Farmer said those findings conform to their previous work on how economic alternatives influence women's ability to escape violent situations.

"Legal services provide real, tangible, long-run economic help: an attorney, a chance to maintain custody of the children, potential child support and alimony. A shelter gives two weeks or 30 days. We don't want to say that's not important. A woman might need that in the moment to get safe."

But although legal aid is the most effective intervention, its expense makes it the least accessible of the public services. Farmer was asked, as an economist, if she sees long-term benefits to the use of tax dollars in this way.

"Absolutely," she replied. "That's part of our goal. Since tax dollars are so scarce in those areas, we want to identify the most effective place to put them. And that's what this study says."

Factors unrelated to public services contributed to the decline in domestic violence in the 1990s. The population is older. And Farmer said women have steadily increased their economic power through education.

"Women who live in areas where they are well represented in the labor force and relatively educated are more likely to have more credible threats of leaving abusive relationships," she explained. "From 1993 to 1998, the percentage of women with college degrees increased almost 16 percent overall, and more than 35 percent for black women.

"So when women have an education, even if they're not currently working, they have something to fall back on and some way out."

She said a previous study showed "it's women's own ability to make money that matters, not the family income, because it's all about having a way out."

The research summary noted that black women were 35 percent more likely to be abused than white women. Farmer was asked if that is because black women are less likely to have an independent source of income.

"It's absolutely true that black women suffer from abuse because of lower income," she said, "but once you control for income and other variables, white women are actually more likely to be abused. ... Being older is a significant variable, and it reduces violence. Being black and Hispanic -- both of those variables -- are significant, and they reduce the chances of being in violence once you control for such factors as income, education, having children under the age of 12, and living in the south. ...

"So you see higher rates of abuse in lower-income households, definitely, although it does cut across classes. But when you separate out women's income, that's where you really see the issue."

The rate of abuse for women with children younger than 12 was twice that of women without young children. "If you have young children, it's a harder economic situation. It's more difficult to leave," Farmer said.

She suggested that because, all other things being equal, minorities have lower rates of domestic violence, and because more minorities were in the United States in the 1990s, this also could have contributed to the lower rates seen in the past decade -- in addition to an aging population, increased education for women, and women's greater economic independence.

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