Sequestration Is Starving Programs That Serve Seniors

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In a recent survey of 86 Area Agencies on Aging, which provide a variety of home-based and community services for the elderly, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) found that sequestration and previous budget cuts have cut deeply into services and will hurt even more next year.

About three-quarters of the agencies surveyed have reduced nutrition services this year in the face of budget cuts, including Meals on Wheels as well as meals served at congregate sites. Half have reduced transportation services, which help the elderly get to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, and other necessary destinations. And nearly 40 percent have reduced the support they offer family members and informal caregivers.

Reduced funding hasn’t just impacted the quantity, however, but also the quality: more than 85 percent said that cuts have impacted the quality of the services they offer. Nearly 60 percent have had to reduce staff members or cut back on hours.

The report notes that funding for these programs has stagnated for the past several years, with cuts to discretionary spending eroding it even further. Then they had to absorb an average of a 5.2 percent cut after sequestration’s across-the-board cuts went into effect in March. While 60 percent of the respondents were able to offset the first round of sequestration cuts, 80 percent said it didn’t fully cover the gap and three-quarters said those funds won’t be available to deflect the blow next year and beyond. At the same time, however, as the country’s population ages more and more people will rely on these programs. “[D]emand for these critical aging services grows on a daily basis,” the report notes.

The survey comes after Meals on Wheels programs reported devastating choices. In response to the cuts, not only are 70 percent reducing the number of meals they serve, dropping 364 meals per week on average, but one in six have had to close meal programs altogether. More than 70 percent have had to create or add to waiting lists for seniors trying to get the nutrition services and 40 percent have cut staff. ThinkProgress spoke with individual programs in May and found that many were already reducing meals, freezing new enrollees, cutting services, and firing or furloughing staff.

Sequestration ravaged a variety of vital programs this year beyond those that serve seniors, from domestic violence support to Head Start to rental and heating assistance to unemployment benefits to homeless services to scientific research projects to public schools. The impact of the cuts will get even worse next year when many agencies run out of accounting tricks or emergency measures.

Yet the budget deficit would actually look better if the cuts were reversed, as would the economy, as undoing them could add as much as 1.2 percent to GDP growth and 1.6 million jobs. Even so, many Congressional Republicans have come out in support of keeping the cuts, calling them a good way to cut spending.