It is almost something that defines South Africans: having lived through the traumatic experience of a violent crime or, at the very least, know someone that have. 19016 murders were committed in the country in 2016/2017, according to the South African Police Service, or 34.1 murders for every 100 000 people. (Contrast Afghanistan at less than 7 murders per 100 000 people, Argentina at less than 6, Kenya at less than 5, India at less than 4, Iran at less than 3, and Ghana at less than 2.) Almost the same number of attempted murders as murders were reported to the police. On average, 109 men and women were raped each day. In 2016/17, there were 22,343 incidents of house robbery recorded, or 61.2 each day.
These statistics are nothing less than shocking. They explain why most South Africans list crime as their number one concern, far above access to land or inequality, and why those that decide to emigrate list ‘improved safety and security’ as the top reason for leaving. Given the widespread concern, one would expect that safety and security would be a top research priority at South African universities. It is not. A 2017 World Bank study by leading social scientists reports: ‘There is a dearth of research on crime in South Africa, which is particularly problematic in this country given the extraordinary high crime rates reported here.’ The study begins to fill the gap, but the results show why understanding the causes of criminal behaviour is so difficult.
Surely poverty is the most obvious explanation for crime? Well, consider that the province with the second highest murder rate in the country is the Western Cape (with 51 murders per 100 000 people), and the province with the lowest murder rate is Limpopo (with 14 murders per 100 000 people). The Western Cape is, of course, much more affluent than Limpopo. This suggests that poverty is not the main reason for crime. Perhaps, then, inequality is what matters. The authors of the World Bank study answer this emphatically. Using a sophisticated regression analysis, they conclude that ‘we did not detect any relationship between inequality and violent crime, nor between unemployment and any crime type.’ If it is not poverty and inequality, then what?
We know, for example, that the victims of most violent crime often know the perpetrator. The 2016 Demographic and Health Survey reveals that 17% of women aged 18 to 24 had experienced violence from a partner in the 12 months before the survey. Economists in the US have developed sophisticated household bargaining models to explain this form of violence, but more could be done to test these models in the South African context.
If there is a dearth of research on the causes of crime, there is even less known about the consequences. The costs of a traumatic experience can be multifaceted for the victim, from the direct medical costs to the life-long psychological and emotional pain. And the effects on family and friends, their relationships and interactions, their productivity and future plans, are enormously difficult to quantify.
A new NBER working paper attempts to measure one, often forgotten, cost of domestic violence: the effect on children in utero. Because crime statistics is difficult to get past university ethics committees, it is difficult to track the victims of crime over time in order to measure the effect of the traumatic experience on later-life outcomes. The three authors of this study, Janet Currie, Michael Mueller-Smith and Maya Rossin-Slater, use a unique source of linked administrative data from New York City. They combine birth records with information on maternal residential addresses with the exact locations and dates of reported crimes to compare the outcomes of women who have a reported assault in their home in months 0 through 9 postconception to those who experience an assault 1 to 10 months after the estimated due date.
Their results are startling. Women who suffer from domestic violence during pregnancy, especially during the third trimester, have as much as 50% higher rates of births that are very low birth weight (less than 1,500 grams) and are very pre-term (less than 34 weeks gestation). The likelihood of induced labour also increases for these women.
The authors then do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the costs of US domestic violence. ‘We calculate an average social cost of $41,771 per assault during pregnancy. Assuming that 2.6 percent of pregnant women experience an assault—the national victimization rate estimated from survey data—this figure translates into a total annual social cost in excess of $4.25 billion.’
Many might groan at trying to put a number on these tragic experiences, but quantifying the social costs – in other words, the costs for society – of domestic violence is one way to help governments prioritise preventative and remedial expenditures. The high rates of domestic violence and abuse in South Africa, particularly of women during their most fertile years, suggests that the costs of domestic violence would be significantly higher here compared to the US. And because domestic violence is more likely to be suffered by women from poor households, this may suggest, according to the authors, ‘an important and previously understudied mechanism by which early-life health disparities perpetuate persistent economic inequality across generations’.
Violence, in all its manifestations, is costly for society, which is why we should invest more resources into understanding its causes and consequences. Domestic abuse, in particular, seems to carry not only a cost for the current generation, but is likely to affect the next generation through its intergenerational effect on children in utero. Understanding and preventing it may be one of the key ways to fight deepening inequality and poverty persistence.
**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 16 August edition of finweek.