Honda: Prevention of Violence Could Save U.S. Billions

Posted April 11, 2011 at 6:30pm

As America’s federal and state governments struggle to forge a fiscally sustainable way forward while fixing budget shortfalls and reforming governmental roles and responsibilities, a report released this week sheds much-needed light on yet-unrealized savings, worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The U.S. Peace Index, the first of its kind, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, examines five indicators throughout all 50 states — violent crime, homicides, incarceration rates, policing and availability of small arms — and illuminates how much money America is mismanaging or missing out on. For example, if the U.S. were more on par with Canadian policy on all five aforementioned fronts, a conservative estimate of the economic effect on the U.S. economy is $361 billion per year and the stimulatory effect would generate 2.7 million jobs. 

That’s a lot of money and a lot of jobs. Given America’s high debt and high unemployment, it could benefit from both. If the U.S. is interested in realizing these savings, securing newfound funds and seizing these jobs, the answer lies in the Peace Index.

For a state to rank high on the Peace Index, it must have comparatively low levels of violent crime and homicide, low rates of incarceration and small arms availability, and reduced policing. A quick look at the top five most peaceful U.S. states on the index — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota and North Dakota — gives you some indication as to what is associated with lower levels of violence.  While the diversity component needs further research — given similarly substantial minority population percentages in both the index’s top 10 “most peaceful” and bottom 10 “least peaceful” states — the answer lies in their social and economic policies.

All top five states rank in America’s top 10 for the highest percentages with health insurance and the lowest percentages of teenage pregnancy. Four of these five states also rank in the top 10 for the highest high school graduation rates and the greatest educational opportunity for their populations. All five states, furthermore, rank in America’s top 15 for the highest percentages with at least a high school diploma, the least inequality among all household incomes and the best perceived access to basic services (e.g., clean water, medicine, etc.). Four of these five states also rank in the top 15 for the least amount of poverty and the lowest rates of infant mortality. None of these top 15 rankings is terribly surprising, however, given published findings by credible economists regarding correlations between inequality, poverty and violence.

States such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, then, that are currently considering budget cuts, which will eat away at education, health care, basic services or economic opportunity, would do well to reconsider. As witnessed above, a state’s ability to provide for its population in these areas dramatically increases its capacity to lower its levels of violence. The more a state graduates its students, insures its residents, provides basic services, prevents pregnancy and infant mortality, and lowers poverty and inequality rates, the less prevalent and pervasive violent crime, homicide, incarceration, policing and small arms trafficking will be. 

That ability is worth its weight in gold. For Wisconsin, a mere 25 percent reduction in violence would save the state almost $1.7 billion annually. For Ohio, the same 25 percent reduction would save it more than $3.6 billion annually. For Florida, the savings would surpass $9.3 billion — just for reducing its violence by 25 percent. Halve the violence in all three states and you’d save almost $30 billion. For the entire country, the cost-savings are equally significant: A mere 25 percent reduction in violence in the U.S. would save $190 billion each year. 

Keep in mind these are conservative cost calculations. On homicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that for each life cut short by homicide, the economy loses $1.65 million (medical costs, loss of lifelong employment, economic productivity costs). On incarceration, this country spends $80 billion annually on its correctional system, at about $35,000 per inmate. Total costs of this lost productivity: $97.7 billion. On violent crime, the total cost to this country in 2009 was $94 billion (medical costs, lost productivity), more than half, or $58 billion, of which was associated with assault, $11 billion with rape and half a billion with robbery. 

Despite these devastating financial implications, the unfortunate tendency for many in America is to pursue policies that primarily react to violence, not aim to prevent it. As a result, not only is America less economically prosperous, it is less peaceful. In fact, in the last decade, increases in incarceration rates have had no effect whatsoever on levels of violent crime.

The way forward, then, is to learn from what the index is telling us. A peace dividend is possible, but primarily through policies that prioritize equal opportunity, health, education and poverty alleviation. By doing so, America saves lives and saves money — a win-win for all.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) serves on the House Budget and Appropriations committees.