On the surface, at least, sequestration hasn’t ended Western civilization as we know it. The government is clearly tightening its belt, the Senate is privatizing its basement barber shop, hundreds of thousands of federal workers will be furloughed for up to three weeks, and a few agencies including the Department of Housing and Urban Development will simply close its doors for a few workdays to save money.
Federal employee union leaders, for sure, are painting a worst-case scenario about deteriorating government services and national security and the threat of long lines at airports this summer. “Sequestration is a nasty disease that will destroy and kill this country and its economy and all working Americans,” J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees – the largest government union – declared recently.
But while Washington bureaucrats and rank and file employees sulk about the threat of disruption in services and pay cuts, Americans across the country are starting to feel the pinch as well – with many federal programs obliged to make cutbacks that are disproportionately hitting the nation’s most vulnerable. After months of President Obama’s doomsday-like warnings and speculation about the adverse impact of sequestration, some of those gloomy forecasts have become reality. For example:
• The Washington Post reports that “some cancer clinics have begun turning away thousands of Medicare patients, blaming the sequester budget cuts.” Oncologists say the funding cuts make it impossible to treat patients with expensive chemotherapy drugs and keep the clinics afloat. Instead, they’re sending patients to more expensive hospitals, which will cost more all around.
• At least 60-low-income families in Dane County, Wisconsin lost their housing subsidy after the federal Housing Assistance program (HAP) reduced the Housing Authority’s monthly rental vouchers by $36,120 a month, according to the Dane County Housing Authority. Those families are likely to be left homeless and in need of emergency shelter, the housing authority said.
• In Merced, California, more than 70 children no longer have access to Head Start, which provide them with free medical and dental care, meals and after-school activities, according to the Coalition on Human Needs. Merced County’s Head Start chapter lost roughly $600,000 because of the sequester, forcing salary cuts for 20 employees. More than 900,000 at-risk children are currently enrolled in Head Start throughout the country, and 70,000 of them will likely lose out, according to a White House estimate.
• Michigan Works! in Ottawa County, which provides job training and work placement to the unemployed, plans to lay off most of its staff and operate under a skeleton crew for three months until the beginning of the new fiscal year in October. The program then hopes to rehire its employees, assuming it regains the lost funding.
• The Fort Peck Indian reservation in Poplar, Montana is grappling with $1.2 million in cuts to its school programs, after already making reductions ahead of sequestration, the Washington Post reported. The superintendent can’t hire a reading teacher in an elementary school where more than half the students do not read or write at grade level. And in a school system where five children recently committed suicide in a single year — and 20 more made the attempt — plans for hiring a second guidance counselor at the high school have been scrapped, leaving one person to advise some 200 students, according to the Post.
• The Sioux City, Iowa, school district is laying off 12 Title 1 reading teachers, five special education teachers, and 15 Early Intervention Block grant staff, as it absorbs $300,000 cuts to federal funding under sequestration.
Patrick Lester, a policy expert with the Center for Effective Government, told The Fiscal Times that the public is far more concerned about how sequestration will impact their daily lives. “So if you would say [to average Americans] it’s going to get X number of people furloughed at the TSA or something like that, they would say, ‘So what?’ And then you say, well, you might get stuck waiting in long lines. Then they start to care.”
In some instances, the impacts of sequestration are so dramatic, that community members and businesses are fighting back against the cuts.
Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it had ordered the closure of 149 air traffic control towers at mostly small plane and private plane airports across the country. This prompted a handful of airports including the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. to sue the FAA, alleging the closures violate federal safety regulations. The Central Illinois Regional Airport, which is expecting to close its traffic control tower on May 5, filed the lawsuit in federal court in the District of Columbia last week.
Other airports that have filed similar lawsuits against the FAA include Spokane Airports in Washington State, and Florida airports in Naples, Ormond Beach and Punta Gorda.
How the public responds to the cuts may say a lot about the future of sequestration, a budget gimmick designed to impose $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction over the coming ten years if Congress and the White House couldn’t agree to a better, more sensible approach – and they couldn’t. With the exception of DOD and the Department of Agriculture, federal departments and agencies have little latitude to soften the blow of cuts or protect their employees against enforced unpaid leave under sequestration.
For now, the public doesn’t have a strong opinion – or clear understanding – of the potential impact of these across the board cuts. According to a Gallup Poll released on March 15, two thirds of the respondents said they simply don’t know enough to tell whether the cuts are a good thing or a bad thing for themselves or their families.
But once those cuts begin to take effect, lawmakers are likely to get an earful of complaints from voters – just as the 2014 mid-term election campaign begins to take shape.
After spending months stirring up public anxiety about the looming cuts, the Obama administration now seems resigned to making the best of the $85 billion in cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year. Obama announced on Wednesday that he would take a 5 percent or $20,000 pay cut this year out of sympathy with workers who will be placed on furlough.
Acting White House Budget Director Jeffrey Zients warned in a Jan. 4 memorandum that federal agencies this time will likely need to furlough “hundreds of thousands of employees” while reducing services – such as food inspections, air travel safety, prison security, and other “mission-critical” activities. Government and industry experts predict that sequestration could cost the economy at least one million government and private sector jobs in the coming year.