To most, “The Sequester,” an $85 billion package of automatic government spending cuts that goes into effect March 1, is a done deal. Less than 24 hours before the scythe-like budget reductions go into effect, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have shown little-to-no willingness to reach a compromise, putting many Americans in peril.
“I think it was a reckless and cowardly way to address our economic challenges in this country,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for policy and advocacy. “Lawmakers did not sit down and do the hard work required to craft a sound budget.”
Part of the broader $1.2 trillion Budget Control Act of 2011, a plan to reduce out-of-control spending and avert a debt ceiling crisis, the sequester was never expected to actually go into effect.
The plan was deliberately “extreme,” including sacred cows such as cuts in defense spending and to programs like Head Start, Shelton said, as guarantees that Republicans and Democrats would hammer out a workable solution.
Now, both sides are pointing fingers.
“These cuts are wrong. They’re not smart. They’re not fair. They’re a self-inflicted wound that doesn’t have to happen,” President Obama told a group of shipyard workers in Newport News, Va., on Feb. 26, as part of a White House campaign to garner public support to halt the sequester.
“But I just have to be honest with you,” he added, “There are too many Republicans in Congress right now who refuse to compromise even an inch when it comes to closing tax loopholes and special interest tax breaks. That's what's holding things up right now."
Republicans say the president needs to spend less time “campaigning” and more time on Capitol Hill identifying entitlement cuts, the GOP countered.
“The president says we have to have another tax increase to avoid the sequester,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) during a Republican press conference on Feb. 25.
“Well, Mr. President, you got your tax increase,” he added, referencing a Jan. 1 tax increase. “It's time to cut spending.”
While Washington engages in its high-stakes political stare-down, however, it is the nation’s most vulnerable—those who depend on government services, including many African Americans—who will be more impacted by the indiscriminate budget cuts, Shelton and other advocates said.
Programs such as Medicaid, Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and food stamps were exempted, but almost every other federal program will see a decrease in funds.
And, while military pay was protected, military benefits, such as tuition assistance and health care for personnel and their families were not.
“We already made deep cuts to the programs that build and sustain our communities in the Budget Control Act of 2011, yet we’re preparing to do it again [placing] the burden of deficit reduction entirely on vulnerable communities and on the middle class,” said Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a statement.
“If we do not come up with a solution by this Friday,” she added, “the education of thousands of students in communities across this country will be put at risk. Teachers, firefighters, police officers, and the people who run substance abuse programs in our communities will lose their jobs. Medicare, Social Security and workforce development and after school programs that give the children of working families a place to go will all lose vital funding.
“This is not a game, but some members of Congress are gambling with many Americans’ livelihood.”
Although Social Security benefits are immune, the Social Security Administration (SSA) employees are uncertain about the possibility of furloughs and pay cuts.
Shelton offered some more specific details of the impact of the automatic cuts over 10 years:
Head Start, an early education program disproportionately used by Black families, will have to slash its enrollment by about 100,000; over 200,000 fewer children will receive vaccinations; Meals on Wheels, a feeding program patronized by many seniors, will serve 17 million fewer meals; public housing programs would receive a $1.94 billion hit; 34,000 fewer women will receive screenings for breast and cervical cancer; Medicare would be cut by 2 percent; federal prisons will see a $355 million cut in their already stretched budgets and employment services, such as job training programs, will have to close their doors to 1.6 million Americans.
“Many of the programs essential to our communities were underfunded” to begin with, Shelton said. “[So] cutting those programs would be very problematic.”
Additionally, the sequester will stymie America’s economic recovery, likely leading to massive layoffs, which could cripple the Black community that is already suffering from chronically high jobless rates.
“The sequester will weaken America’s economic recovery,” President Obama said. Already, the uncertainty around these cuts is having an effect. Companies are starting to prepare for layoff notices. Families are preparing to cut back on expenses. And the longer these cuts are in place, the greater the damage.”