Spotlight Exclusives

Reducing Violence, Increasing OpportunityThe Peaceful Path to Economic Prosperity

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Although policymakers often focus our economic debate on issues like taxes, deficits, and government spending, one issue that receives less attention is violence. Yet the reality is that violence is a key barrier to opportunity, negatively impacting both social and economic development.

We know that violence and instability impede prosperity in fragile states, but our research has found that violence also affects opportunity in our own cities and states. For this reason, it۪s critical that Americans begin to pay attention to how peace can boost economic opportunity and well-being.

According to our research, peace in the U.S. is clearly linked to economic, health, and education opportunities. Our U.S. Peace Index evaluates peace according to five measures of the absence of violence. It maps levels of peacefulness across 50 states and 61 metropolitan areas to understand the geographic distribution of peace, the socioeconomic attributes of peaceful societies, and the cost of violence across states.

The findings of the U.S. Peace Index show that poverty and economic opportunity are significantly associated with peace. Only one of the ten most peaceful states has a high level of income inequality, and not a single one has more than ten percent of its families living in poverty. Five of these states are also ranked in the top ten of the Opportunity Index, a project of Opportunity Nation and Measure of America that evaluates economic opportunity and mobility. Likewise, none of those ten states have more than 15 percent of citizens without health insurance.

The states and cities with lower levels of education, health, and economic opportunity were more violent. They also spent substantially more money per person trying to stop violence and pay for its consequences.

Termed “violence containment spending,” this type of expenditure consumes both state and private funds. It includes crime, security services, veterans۪ affairs, and the military essentially all public and private expenditures related to the prevention and consequences of violence. Some of these expenditures for instance veterans۪ affairs react to violence abroad, such as foreign conflict, but many concern what۪s happening in states themselves. If considered an industry, violence containment spending would be the largest in the U.S. today, surpassing real estate and manufacturing. When aggregated, it constitutes a full 15 percent of our GDP.

Our research has found that $2.16 trillion was spent on violence containment in the U.S. in 2010. This amounts to one in every seven dollars spenta figure that has increased steadily for the past ten years. To put this figure into perspective, U.S. spending on violence containment is almost equal to the entire U.K. economy.

When we examine the productivity of violence containment spending, we find that these funds could be used more efficiently if they were invested in alternative sectors. We know that violence-related expenditures result in far less job creation than investment of those same dollars in education or another more economically productive industry. Research from the Political Economy Research Institute compares the effectiveness of $1 billion of federal government spending on the military versus other areas, finding that spending on education, for instance, creates more than 2.5 times more jobs.
If violence is a barrier to growth, peace has the potential to provide a path to prosperity. In fact, just a five percent reduction in federal violence containment spending each year, over the next three years, could provide the capital to update the entire nation۪s school infrastructure. Furthermore, redistributing a 15 percent reduction in violence containment spending into education and tax cuts could reduce unemployment by 13 percentthat۪s an additional 1.7 million new jobs.
The good news is that there are significant opportunities to reduce violence and, at the same time, promote opportunity. Looking at the U.S. Peace Index as a roadmap, states should focus on improving the factors associated with violence, such as high levels of poverty and poor access to education and basic services like clean water, health insurance, and public transport. 

We must recognize that our nation is spending money unproductively. If policymakers focused on improving access to education, economic, and health opportunities, it would lead to savings in violence-related expenditures. Investing those savings back into education, health, jobs, and infrastructure would lead to increased opportunity, productivity, and violence reduction, which would ultimately lower the need for violence containment spending. A virtuous cycle, and one that deserves our attention.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Michelle Breslauer directs U.S. programs at the Institute for Economics and Peace.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at


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