The Sequester's Devastating Impact on America's Poor

It's fashionable in political circles to say the mandatory budgets cuts haven't been the predicted disaster. Cuts to programs like Head Start suggest otherwise.

Children at a Head Start facility in Frederick, Maryland. (Reuters)

The federal government's across-the-board sequestration cuts, which began taking effect in March, may seem like an overhyped piece of political theater--that is, unless you're an unemployed adult living in Michigan. There, roughly 82,000 people, like Kristina Feldotte of Saginaw, have watched their federal unemployment checks dwindle by 10.7 percent since late March. That's as much as a $150 per month from payments that, at most, clock in at $1,440.

"It flabbergasts me that our government can't get its crap together," says Feldotte, 47, a mother of four and a laid-off public-school teacher. "With the air-traffic controllers, Congress fixed that right away because it affected the planes going in and out of Washington. But they're not doing anything that benefits the people."

That's especially true of poor people since Congress and the White House failed to reach a deal to undo the cuts in March. Air-traffic controllers and meat inspectors, represented by powerful unions and lobbyists, got reprieves. Agencies such as the Justice and Homeland Security departments found wiggle room in their budgets to stave off furloughs. But programs outside of D.C. for low-income or distressed people -- such as Head Start, Meals on Wheels, or federal unemployment benefits -- have suffered as the cuts kicked in, leading to cancellations, fewer meals, smaller checks, and staff layoffs.

"The impacts of the sequester have been hard to document, but it really is a diminution of services," says Sharon Parrott, vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Take the Meals on Wheels program in Contra Costa County, California, which, like the national program, has had to cut 5.1 percent of its budget. After losing $89,000 in federal funding over a six-month period, the program had to scale back the number of meals it serves from 1,500 to 1,300 a day. This puts its director in the unenviable position of having to choose which low-income or lonely 80-year-olds are less deserving of a meal delivery. "We're only adding new clients in the direst circumstances -- like they will die or be institutionalized if we don't get to them," says Paul Kraintz, director of the county's nutrition program.

The Head Start program in Rockland County, N.Y., had to make similarly tough choices. It managed to keep open its summer program for the youngest children, ages 1 to 3, but had to cancel the summer sessions for 3-to-5-year-olds and lay off 12 staff members to save roughly $240,000, says Ouida Foster Toutebon, executive director of Head Start Rockland. Like the national program, it will lose about 5 percent of its budget -- in this case, $414,925 -- by the end of the fiscal year, September 30. "The parents were upset, because they needed to make other arrangements," Toutebon says.

This was not the way sequestration was meant to go. The reductions were designed to be so painful -- to both defense and nondefense discretionary programs -- that Republicans and Democrats would flock to the negotiating table to find a compromise. Instead, the effects of sequestration have been uneven, with small pockets of intense upheaval rather than widespread but mild disruptions. Now, many Republicans openly profess their love of the cuts, especially since the fiscal-cliff deal did not seriously slash government spending or tweak entitlement programs, as the GOP had hoped it would. In their view, sequestration turned into the next best option for shrinking the federal government.

Democrats did manage to safeguard programs for the absolute neediest Americans. The sequester exempts a long list of safety-net programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare benefits, and Social Security. But Democrats have not been able to protect cornerstone social programs such as Meals on Wheels or Head Start, nor have they been able to prod Republicans to undo the cuts -- especially now that the White House's many dire projections have yet to come true. Border Patrol agents did not get furloughed, airplanes were not grounded, and the mass layoff of teachers did not occur.

"I think people look at what the impacts will be with a grain of salt now," says Barry Anderson, a former official with the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget who was involved in crafting sequestration legislation in the 1990s. "A 5 percent cut just wasn't the end of the world that some people thought it would be." Yet, in addition to the cuts to low-income programs, the Defense Department started to furlough 650,000 civilian employees this week. The IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency, OMB, and others have also begun furloughs.

If the cuts have not been felt equally, it's because many agencies found extra money in contingency accounts or ways to cuts costs without reducing their head counts. But that's not true of programs like Head Start and grant-recipients like Meals on Wheels that already run on shoestring budgets. Further, many federal workers (who had a median salary of $73,000 last year) are better equipped to absorb the financial shock of (at most) 11 furlough days than are government dependents who rely on weekly unemployment checks or struggle to find their next meal.

The story gets even more complicated next fiscal year. Appropriators will devise their own implementation, and they needn't make across-the-board cuts as long as they remove equal sums from defense and nondefense programs and stay under caps laid out in the Budget Control Act. Senate Democrats want to use this discretion to undo the sequester, while Republicans want to cut more discretionary spending and bolster defense.

Yet again, the two parties are on a budgetary collision course scheduled to erupt this fall. Until a broader -- and more politically powerful -- group of people feels the effects, legislators may never marshal the political will to tweak or change the cuts.