What Downplaying The Impact Of Sequestration Misses About Low-Income Americans

Ignelda Alejo, victim at the Shade Tree shelter (Credit: Las Vegas Review-Journal)

A recent Washington Post article argues that much of the doomsday predictions about sequestration have proven to be exaggerated. It paints a picture of sequestration that could lead one to believe that because some of the predictions about its effects have not (yet) come to pass, the cuts don’t hurt that bad. But this view of the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts downplays the very real impact many Americans are already experiencing.

Although the article claims that “sequestration has not become a daily hassle for most Americans,” it doesn’t include an interview from a low-income American or an advocate who provides services to low-income Americans. If so, readers might have found that the “daily hassle” of sequestration is a huge understatement for people like Verna Hayden of the San Francisco Bay Area, who relies on Housing Choice Vouchers to help her pay her rent. Given that the average income of families receiving housing vouchers is $12,500, having to pay up to $200 more per month in rent as a result of sequestration can be the difference in being able to make ends meet. “[Congressmen] should be in our shoes for just one week to see how we’re doing our best to make ends meet and how losing even a little bit will hurt someone like me,” said Hayden.

Students on military bases, whose school districts rely on Federal Impact Aid to make up for their lack of tax revenue, might say that sequestration’s impact is in fact dire. If sequestration cuts are not rolled back and instead become permanent, Heiko Sweeney, principal of Akers Elementary School on Naval Air Station Lemoore, says, “It would be … devastating.” Federal Impact Aid makes up 30 percent of her school district’s budget.

Families like Diane Reese’s rely on the Federal Work-Study Program to finance their children’s college educations. This program provides federal funding for colleges and universities to hire students who need financial aid, and the wages the students earn go toward the cost of their education. But due to budget cuts at the Department of Education, 33,000 college students will be dropped from the program and will no longer have access to this critical source of funding for low-income students. Reese would tell you that “[they’ve] been fed the line that education is the way out of poverty and the path to a middle-class income and lifestyle, but with college running at least $20,000 a year or more—and that’s for a public state school—who can afford higher education but the already wealthy?”

The Shade Tree, a Las Vegas shelter that provides sanctuary to 350 abused women and children, had its federal funding cut by 15 percent beginning on March 1. In spite of the fact that the shelter reported an increase in the number of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault seeking assistance, the cut comes in addition to several state and local funding cuts that the Shade Tree has had to absorb recently. “We are going through reserves,” said executive director Marlene Richter. “The last thing that we needed was reductions in funding.”

Even in some cases where the article highlights ways in which sequestration was seemingly avoided, like in the case of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), it doesn’t mention how this was merely kicking the can down the road. By shifting money from capital improvement accounts to cover cuts in operating accounts, sequestration means that FAA infrastructure and operations will feel the pinch in years to come if sequestration remains in place. The article points to a similar story with the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of cuts to operating costs like salaries, the department cut things like maintenance and hiring, which will impact its future capabilities. In fact, part of the untold story of sequestration’s impact is that some of its most enduring effects may be felt over time, as the government neglects critical investments in areas like infrastructure and science research and development.

While the article offers a caveat that sequestration has affected some people, it vastly understates the impact on these people’s lives. The truth is that not all sequestration cuts are created equally. Having to wait an extra hour or two to catch a flight is not as life changing as the prospect of being pushed into homelessness. Emphasizing the fact that the thunderstorm that was supposed to be sequestration has not (yet) occurred unfortunately discounts the fact that sequestration is still wreaking havoc on the lives of millions of Americans.

is a Policy Analyst with the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.