The cost of crime

Vi­o­lent crime, in all its man­i­fes­ta­tions, is costly for so­ci­ety. There­fore South Africa should in­vest more re­sources into un­der­stand­ing its causes and con­se­quences.

Finweek English Edition - - Contents - By Jo­han Fourie Jo­han Fourie

this re­al­ity al­most de­fines South Africans: Hav­ing lived through the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of a vi­o­lent crime or, at the very least, know­ing some­one who has. South Africa had 19 016 mur­ders in 2016/2017, ac­cord­ing to the South African Po­lice Ser­vice (SAPS), or 34.1 mur­ders for ev­ery 100 000 peo­ple. In con­trast: Afghanista­n is 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 were re­ported to the po­lice. On av­er­age, 109 men and women were raped each day, and there were 22 343 in­ci­dents of house rob­beries recorded, or 61.2 each day.

These sta­tis­tics ex­plain why most South Africans list crime as their num­ber-one con­cern – far above ac­cess to land or the coun­try’s level of in­equal­ity – and why those that de­cide to em­i­grate list “im­proved safety and se­cu­rity” as the top rea­son for leav­ing.

One would then ex­pect that safety and se­cu­rity would be a top re­search pri­or­ity at South African uni­ver­si­ties. It’s 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? Well, the prov­ince with the sec­ond-high­est mur­der rate is the West­ern Cape (51 mur­ders per 100 000 peo­ple), and the low­est is Lim­popo (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 it’s in­equal­ity? But us­ing a so­phis­ti­cated re­gres­sion anal­y­sis, the au­thors of the World Bank study con­clude that “we did not de­tect any re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­equal­ity and vi­o­lent crime, nor be­tween un­em­ploy­ment and any crime type”. So then what?

We know that the vic­tims of most vi­o­lent crimes 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 local con­text.

Even less is known about the con­se­quences of vi­o­lent crime. The costs of a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence can be mul­ti­fac­eted for the vic­tim, from di­rect med­i­cal costs to life­long psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional pain. And the ef­fects on fam­ily and friends, their re­la­tion­ships and in­ter­ac­tions, pro­duc­tiv­ity and fu­ture plans, are enor­mously dif­fi­cult to quan­tify.

A re­cent work­ing pa­per by the US Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic

Quan­ti­fy­ing the costs of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence for so­ci­ety is one way to help gov­ern­ments pri­ori­tise pre­ven­ta­tive and re­me­dial ex­pen­di­tures.

Re­search (NBER) at­tempts to mea­sure one, of­ten for­got­ten, cost of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence: the ef­fect on chil­dren in utero. Be­cause crime sta­tis­tics are dif­fi­cult to get past univer­sity ethics com­mit­tees, it’s 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 re­ported as­sault in their home in the months post-con­cep­tion, to those who ex­pe­ri­ence an as­sault 1 to 10 months af­ter the es­ti­mated due date.

Their results are star­tling. Ba­bies of women who suf­fer from do­mes­tic vi­o­lence dur­ing preg­nancy, es­pe­cially dur­ing the third trimester, have as much as 50% higher rates of very low birth weight (less than 1.5kg) and are of­ten pre-term (less than 34 weeks ges­ta­tion). The like­li­hood of in­duced labour also in­creases.

The au­thors 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% 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 $4.25bn.”

Many might balk at try­ing to put a num­ber on these ex­pe­ri­ences, but quan­ti­fy­ing the costs of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is one way to help gov­ern­ments pri­ori­tise pre­ven­ta­tive and re­me­dial ex­pen­di­tures.

The high rates of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence 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 “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 key to fight­ing deep­en­ing in­equal­ity and poverty per­sis­tence. ■ ed­i­to­rial@fin­

is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in eco­nomics at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity.

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