Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish: Proposed Funding Cuts for Response to Violence Against Women

This week, Senators Leahy and Crapo introduced a bill to reauthorize and amend the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The bad news is that the proposed bill substantively slashes funding by almost 20 percent.

This week, Senators Leahy and Crapo introduced a bill to reauthorize and amend the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal law first enacted in 1994.

This is mostly good news. The VAWA mandates federal funding for victim assistance and transitional housing, strengthens provisions to penalize offenders, and requires states to provide a certain level of services with a view to preventing violence from occurring in the first place.

The bad news is that the proposed bill substantively slashes the funding for the implementation of the bill, reducing the authorized funds by more than $144 million (almost 20 percent) of 2005 levels over 5 years.

To be sure, the federal government has to save quite a lot more than $144 million to overcome its spending deficit, and Senator Leahy justified the cuts by reference to heightened efficiency through the consolidation of services.  But if it is indeed possible to consolidate services and do more with less, would it not have been appropriate to ask, first, if the current funding levels adequately cover current needs?

To start with, it is clear that violence against women in the United States has not gone away these past 20 years.  The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 25 percent of women in the United States experience domestic violence some time in their lives, and that adult women experience over 5 million instances of violent assault annually.

Adolescents—even young adolescents—are also affected.  Over 70 percent of our 7th and 8th graders report they are “dating,” and in a 2009 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control about 10 percent of students overall reported being physically hurt by someone they were dating.

In addition, the economic downturn has substantially affected women’s ability to leave abusive relationships. In the best of times, women who want to leave an abusive partner worry about finding employment and housing, especially if they also need to provide for children.  During economic crises, these concerns increase dramatically and are exacerbated by the fact that governmental and non-governmental service providers usually face funding crises of their own and may have had to cut services. 

In 2008, the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that, on one day alone, almost 9000 requests for services went unmet because of lack of resources.  In 2009, that number had increased by 300.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline, set up by VAWA, reported that calls to the hotline increased by over 19 percent in the 12 months after the September 2008 market crash.

The director of the government’s Office on Violence Against Women testified before the Senate Committee of the Judiciary in May 2010 that, between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, one shelter alone reported a 44 percent increase in persons sheltered, a 74 percent increase in crisis response, and a 124 percent increase in calls requesting shelter

But most pointedly, domestic violence costs society a lot more than the $144 million the introduced bill would save by downsizing responses to it.  Those 5 million assaults on women annually resulted in nearly 2 million injuries, of which more than half a million required medical attention, the Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2003.  Victims of domestic violence lost nearly 8 million work days and 5.6 million days of productivity due to violence.

In all, assaults on women cost almost $6 billion every year. Because these estimates are based on rates of violence before the current economic crisis, the true cost may well be higher today

In other words: the bill proposes to cut $144 million over 5 years from services that seek to remedy a problem which, even with the current government involvement, will cost society about $30 billion over that same period.

Some might say that estimates about the cost of intimate-partner violence are notoriously unpredictable, that the federal government truly is broke, or that the proposed cuts really do reflect a consolidation of services that will result in more efficient use of funds. But even if they were right, that would not take away from the fact that domestic violence is a continuing, costly, and consistently underserved problem.

Cutting federal funds for dealing with it is not only bad news, it is a bad idea.