Policy Resource

The Human Face of the Sequester

Sep 18, 2012

Last Friday, the Obama Administration gave the first detailed view of the impact of the sequester, or automatic funding cut, that must occur next January unless Congress acts to avert it.

The report projects an 8.2 percent cut for domestic discretionary programs, including many that help support the development of vulnerable infants and toddlers. Defense programs would receive a 9.4 percent cut. No longer the focus primarily of Washington insiders, these far-ranging funding reductions will reverberate beyond the Washington beltway to the human services provided at the state and local levels. With the campaign for federal elective offices in full swing, children and family advocates need to send a clear message: It is dangerous to reduce the deficit by cutting programs that support children’s development and help them reach their potential. Solutions to our budget crisis must be balanced and responsible.

How did we get here? The sequester was the fail safe system put in place by last year’s deficit reduction deal (the Budget Control Act of 2011, or BCA), reached to avoid defaulting on our national debt. Through a sort of budgetary deterrence theory, the specter of automatic cuts to both defense and domestic programs was meant to force Congress to agree on additional deficit reduction measures. To reach that agreement, the BCA created a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (popularly known as the “Super Committee”). The Super Committee’s mission: come up with legislation by January 15, 2012, to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 TRILLION. Only if the Committee failed in its mission would the sequestration process be triggered.

They failed. And now the sequester that wasn’t considered a serious possibility is just a few months away from taking effect.

What programs and services would be affected? The process outlined in the 2011 law calls for one-half of the automatic cuts from defense and the other half from the “nondefense discretionary” (“NDD”) side of the budget. It is the NDD side that funds Head Start and Early Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and child abuse prevention programs, not to mention activities that ensure we have clear air and water and functions such as air traffic control.

The BCA set dollar amounts for the total cuts. Friday’s report is the first official estimate of the detailed cuts needed to reach those totals. For example, CCDBG discretionary funding would lose $187 million. Children and Family Services programs, from child abuse prevention to Head Start/Early Head Start, would lose $812 million. The BCA did exempt some safety net programs, such as foster care payments, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, mandatory child care funding, and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Cuts for the remaining programs will be made with a very blunt ax. The Administration points out that it does not have discretion over which programs are cut or the percentage of the reduction. In other words, there is no way to set national priorities for where the cuts should occur.

Although the report doesn’t provide descriptions of how people would be affected, estimates that have trickled out over the summer show the impact in human terms. According to a report issued by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies, States and local communities would lose $2.7 billion in Federal funding for just three critical education programs alone – Title I, special education State grants, and Head Start – that serve a combined 30.7 million children. Nationwide, these cuts would force 46,349 employees to either lose their jobs or rely on cash-strapped States and localities to pick up their salaries instead.

From the Harkin Report and other estimates, we can see the impact of sequestration on programs particularly important to infants, toddlers, and their families:

  • Head Start and Early Head Start would serve an estimated 96,179 fewer low-income and at-risk children in fiscal year 2013 alone.
  • Child Care and Development Block Grant would serve 80,000 fewer children.
  • Part C Early Intervention Grants would serve 26,949 fewer infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.
  • Childhood Immunization Grants, which helps states purchase and distribute vaccines for uninsured or poor children, would have to provide vaccinations to 211,958 fewer children.
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance would be cut by $285 million just as winter is setting in.
  • Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) would have to cut as many as 750,000 mothers and children from its services.

What is the Fiscal Cliff? Another cataclysmic event will also occur in January 2013 if Congress doesn’t act: the Bush-era tax cuts, extended for another year in the debt deal, will expire on the first of the year. Together these events form a fiscal cliff, as taxes rise and government services are slashed. Economists worry that going over this cliff would lead to another recession. Yet the legislative and election calendars are such that it appears that policymakers will at least tiptoe to the edge and peer over that cliff before acting. On October 5, Congress Recesses for the Presidential and Congressional Elections. November 6 is Election Day. On November 13 Congress will return for the Post-Election Session (Lame Duck).

The calendar thus gives them less than 2 months to reach a “Grand Budget Deal” that may prevent Sequestration from occurring on January 2, 2013, and lay a path forward for the Budget. Complicating the process are the transitions that may be occurring as a new Congress, and possibly a new Administration, prepares to take office.

There is speculation that these momentous decisions will be delayed until the new Congress takes office. However, at least one bond rating agency has warned that the United States’ credit-worthiness rating could be downgraded if significant movement toward a solution to the nation’s deficit problems isn’t signaled. So, the question is not whether additional deficit reduction will occur, but how it will be achieved. Over the summer, there has been a steady drumbeat from some quarters to avoid the defense cuts, potentially increasing cuts to domestic programs.

What can advocates do? While the scenarios are confusing, the message on behalf of children and families could not be more clear: Deficit reduction should not be achieved at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society. Last week we wrote about the impacts of the poverty, which affects one quarter of infants and toddlers in our country, and the importance of government services for supporting their development. Our nation cannot compete in the global economy of the future if we undermine the very programs that give so many children the opportunity to reach their potential.

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