Social security as a weapon of economic violence

Leanne HoSocial security rights review

Rebecca Glenn, Centre for Women’s Economic Safety, Jasmine Opdam, Financial Abuse Service NSW, Pamela Taylor-Barnett, Social Security Rights Victoria


People using violence against their partner are adept at weaponising economic products and systems to extend their abuse both during a relationship and after it ends.

Economic abuse is an often-hidden form of family violence in which one person tries to control another by restricting or exploiting their economic resources in a way that threatens their economic security and potential for self-sufficiency[i].

This could look like one partner controlling all the money, or withholding necessities, sabotaging their partner’s ability to earn an income, or building up debts in the other person’s name.

There are many different tactics of economic abuse but it is usually not the only thing going on. It commonly co-occurs with other forms of abuse, like emotional, psychological, physical, or sexualised violence.

Importantly, when the person using economic abuse is a man and the target of their abuse is a woman, there are structural disadvantages that make the woman more vulnerable to his increased control, and less able to recover, including: the gender pay gap, women’s higher rates of unpaid care, higher rates of part-time and casual work linked partly to the cost and availability of childcare, as well as societal expectations about motherhood.

Conservative estimates suggest 1 in 6 women will experience economic abuse at the hands of a current or former partner[ii]. And more than 60 per cent of women in high financial stress have a history of economic abuse[iii].

The link between domestic violence and economic insecurity is well established. We know that:

  • Women experiencing domestic violence have more difficulty paying bills, carry higher average levels of debt, and are more likely to go without food when they are hungry.
  • Women experiencing domestic violence are much more likely to cease paid employment[iv].
  • Domestic and family violence is the primary reason women seek support from homelessness services[v].

However, the deliberate nature of economic abuse driving this financial precarity is often overlooked.

For instance, preventing a partner from working, redrawing ‘savings’ from a joint mortgage facility, putting joint bills in the other partner’s name only, or being the registered owner of a vehicle their partner relies upon for transport, are just a few examples.

The social security system should be a key support for people experiencing violence from an intimate partner, but it is also manipulated, even while it is already ill-equipped to provide adequate and timely support to victim-survivors of abuse.

Some of the ways the social security system is turned into a weapon by perpetrators include:

  • women being forced by the abusive partner they live with to apply for the single rate of the Jobseeker payment (which is a higher amount than the rate when you are part of a couple), and then threatened with being dobbed in;
  • misleading claims about the percentage of care of children to manipulate Child Support payments; and
  • refusal to lodge tax returns meaning that an incorrect rate of Family Tax Benefit is paid, leading to a future debt for the victim-survivor.

All of this is against a backdrop where even if the abusive partner is not deliberately manipulating Centrelink, the system still falls short in supporting people experiencing domestic and family violence. It assumes couples share income, it doesn’t deal very well with couples who are separated but living under the one roof, and it fails to adequately support people who have assets on paper that are controlled by their partner or ex-partner. The criteria for Centrelink’s Crisis Payment in cases of domestic and family violence is too restrictive and must be claimed within seven days which is a ridiculously short time frame for people in crisis.

This interplay of gendered violence, structural economic barriers, and poorly designed social security undermines women’s economic safety.

In our presentation at the online EJA Conference 30 August, we will provide case examples with context that illustrate the cumulative impact of these factors.



[i] Adams et al (2020). The Revised Scale of Economic Abuse (SEA2): Development and initial psychometric testing of an updated measure of economic abuse in intimate relationships. Psychology of Violence, 10(3),


[ii] Kutin et al (2017).  Economic abuse between intimate partners in Australia: Prevalence, health status,

disability and financial stress. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 41(3), 269-274.

[iii] ibid

[iv] Women’s Refuge NZ (2017). Women’s Experiences of Economic Abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand. National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges Inc.

[v] AIHW (2019). Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story 2019. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australian Government. Canberra.