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Low-Income Victims of Domestic Violence Facing a Political Super Storm

Reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

From left, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) talk to reporters about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that was passed originally in 1994, Wednesday, April 18, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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Americans across the country are bracing for the impact of the sequester, the automatic across-the-board spending cuts to domestic programs—including vital human-needs services—set for this Friday, March 1. The nation faces dire consequences should these cuts take effect, but it’s even worse for low-income women and their families suffering from domestic violence.

Poor women and their families are facing a super storm of grim outcomes. Not only will the severe cuts to critical domestic-violence, sexual-assault, and human-needs services devastate low-income victims and the providers that serve them and their families, but the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act also remains held up in Congress after its expiration more than a year ago. This lack of needed legislation combined with severe funding cuts will seriously undermine the support services and assistance from law enforcement that low-income women rely on to escape abusive situations, protect their families, and seek justice.

This is particularly troubling because low-income women are uniquely at risk for domestic violence. Though women of all income levels can experience domestic violence, women who live in economically distressed households and neighborhoods are more likely to experience domestic violence. Women without their own financial resources or who are economically dependent on their abuser are more likely to stay with their abuser or return to their abuser if they have already left, and they are less likely to get a restraining order against their abuser. This situation leaves low-income women trapped by their lack of financial resources, a circumstance that is often exploited by abusers to keep these women and their children in a cycle of violence. To make matters worse, children who witness domestic violence are more likely to perform poorly in school, experience behavioral problems, and develop longer-term problems such as depression and a tolerance for violence in relationships.

The House continues to drag its feet on the Violence Against Women Act

This Thursday the House of Representatives will vote again on reauthorizing the long-stalled Violence Against Women Act. Originally enacted in 1994, and subsequently reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, the Violence Against Women Act was the first comprehensive effort in our country to tackle domestic violence and provide new law-enforcement tools and support services to victims. The law provided programs for violence prevention, investigations, and prosecutions. It also provided new service resources for victims that are particularly important to low-income women, including court-appointed special advocates, a national domestic-violence hotline, services for runaway youth, new funding for domestic-violence shelters, and programs for battered immigrant women, Native American women, and other underserved populations.

Because the need was so great, the Violence Against Women Act sailed through Congress three times with overwhelming bipartisan support—until now. For the first time in its history, the legislation failed to make it through Congress and to the president’s desk. Why? House Republican leadership dug in its heels and refused to include new protections for Native American women, gay and transgender individuals, and immigrant women who were included in the Senate version of the bill that passed with a rare bipartisan supermajority of 68 senators, including the affirmative vote of every female member.

During this Congress, the Senate fast-tracked a nearly identical bill and passed it with even stronger support—78 votes to 22 votes. In a move even more cynical than before, House leadership proposed a watered-down alternative bill that fully stripped the gay and transgender provisions and added a loophole—essentially a “get out of jail” toolkit for non-Native men who abuse Native women. But due to this partisan hardline position, 19 Republican House members are now standing up to House leadership demanding the passage of a fully inclusive Violence Against Women Act similar to the Senate version. It now seems more promising that Congress will finally do the right thing and get a bill to the president’s desk.

The ability to call a national hotline for support, escape a violent spouse, protect a sexually abused child, or be represented properly in court without an abuser’s interference—all of these services are in danger without the bill’s reauthorization. The anticipated new version of the Violence Against Women Act would even expand housing support, which is critical considering that violence against women is one of the primary causes of women’s homelessness. These housing protections are crucial and are often the primary pathways out of violence for low-income women who lack economic independence from their abusers.

Sequestration will devastate low-income victims of domestic violence and their children

The still uncertain reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is only one of the major ways in which low-income victims of domestic violence are in danger. Current funding for vital domestic-violence and sexual-abuse programs, as well as other federal programs that support victims of domestic abuse, are also under threat due to sequestration.

If sequestration goes into effect, funding for the Violence Against Women Act could be slashed by more than $20 million, preventing nearly 36,000 victims of violence from obtaining shelter, legal assistance, and services for their children. The primary funding stream for domestic-violence shelters, the Family Violence Prevention Services fund, may see as much as $9 million cut from its budget, reducing services to as many as 113,000 victims. These cuts would come at a time when domestic-violence centers that provide much-needed assistance are already scrambling. Florida, for instance, may see a cut in its STOP Violence Against Women Program of more than $400,000, potentially leaving 1,500 victims in the state without services.

Other federal programs that support pathways to economic independence for low-income women are also threatened by sequestration. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, child care assistance—which eliminates a major barrier to work for low-income women and provides social and emotional development services to low-income children—would be slashed under sequestration, resulting in more than 30,000 children losing access to these vital subsidies. And more than 600,000 people would be cut from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, an essential program that provides low-income expectant mothers and their infants with the healthy food, nutrition, and care they need during this critical phase of their lives. These and other federal programs provide women and their children with the support they need to escape violent situations.

The bottom line

No woman should be forced to stay in a violent situation because our country lacks the political will to provide them with the resources that they desperately need to protect themselves and their children.

Failing to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and allowing sequestration to take effect will have real consequences for low-income victims of domestic violence and their families. We know programs funded by the Violence Against Women Act work. These important programs save lives and provide women with the services they need to escape abuse. Tomorrow the House should vote down their partisan bill and pass the strongly bipartisan Senate bill.

With International Women’s Day approaching on March 8, there will be tremendous worldwide discussion about violence against women. The United States should take the opportunity to look back on what it has done in the past to improve the lives of women and children caught in the cycle of domestic violence—and determine what more can be done to put an end to domestic violence once and for all. We can continue toward that goal by making sure that the sequester and the stalled Violence Against Women Act do not further shrink the programs that provide low-income women and their children with pathways to free them from violence.

Erik Stegman is the Manager of the Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress. Katie Wright is a Research Associate at the Center.

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