Sequester Might Sound Wonky, But It's Real and It Hurts

PHOTO: Federal employees take part in a rally in front of Department of Labor, and across from the U.S. Capitol, protesting budget cuts related to sequestration March 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.Win McNamee/Getty Images
Federal employees take part in a rally in front of Department of Labor, and across from the U.S. Capitol, protesting budget cuts related to sequestration March 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The term sequester might have sounded wonky and distant in the spring, but Americans now say it's become all too real.

According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 22 percent of Americans say they have been significantly affected by the wide-ranging budget cuts. But that number jumps to 31 percent for people making less than $30,000 per year.

While the economy hasn't sunk back into a recession as some analysts predicted, sequestration has hit the country's most vulnerable residents hard. Many are young people who say the cuts have made it even more difficult to find jobs. Others have seen their hours cut and benefits reduced. Everything from cancer research to assistance for senior citizens has been hit. Housing authorities that help poor families have been forced to slash their budgets and turn people away.

About half the people surveyed don't think it's going to get better anytime soon. They're right: Some of the cuts are just now taking effect.

Programs that offer legal aid have seen hits, and public defenders who provide legal counsel to poor people in court have been forced to take furloughs. Take Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, for example, which serves about 22,000 people each year. Spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said she expects to serve about 3,000 fewer Texans this year because of sequestration.

The nonprofit is the largest legal aid provider in Texas and the third largest in the United States. It helps low-income, mostly Hispanic residents with everything from domestic violence cases to foreclosure. And the catch-22 is that as these cuts set in, problems like domestic violence are increasing, Martinez said, because people are under immense stress as they struggle to support their families in an economy that hasn't added enough jobs.

Federal support for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has been cut, but so has funding at the state level. State money comes from interest payments on bank accounts held by Texas lawyers on behalf of their clients, but those interest rates are incredibly low right now. That means the organization has been forced to cut the number of lawyers in its workforce, which has reduced the number of people it can serve. Martinez estimates that a full four-fifths of everyone who seeks help is turned away because the organization simply doesn't have the resources to help.

Erik Stegman, manager of a Center for American Progress initiative to cut poverty by half in ten years has closely monitored the sequester. He said cuts to programs like Head Start, the federally funded early childhood education program for low-income preschoolers, will be especially painful.

Head Start will serve about 70,000 fewer kids this fall because of sequester, at a time when President Obama is pushing universal preschool.

The program doesn't just teach kids about shapes and numbers, either. The Head Start program at Centro Hispano in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, sets kids up with dental and vision appointments they might not otherwise get.

Stegman said that to avoid cutting the number of kids they serve, some Head Start programs have eliminated those services. They've stopped offering things like nutrition classes and transportation, which can make just getting to class difficult for some families.

The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy organization, says Head Start cuts will drastically hurt Latino kids. They've put together a YouTube series of interviews with people from NCLR affiliates around the country.

Scarlett Lanzas, executive director of Puentes in New Orleans, said the program is often Spanish-speaking kids' first experience with English. And it helps prepare them for school, so they're not behind other children when they arrive in Kindergarten.

Alba Hernandez, parent involvement coordinator at The Unity Council in Oakland, California, broke into tears at the idea of funding cuts.

A product of the program herself, she said it helped her own children learn when she was a struggling teen mom.

"It would hurt me tremendously to know that a program such as this...could be cut," she said.

Stegman also warned that the potential future impact of sequester years down the line is often overlooked.

The cuts were across-the-board in 2013, but the House and Senate appropriations committees will have a hand in how those cuts are dispersed in 2014, meaning some agencies could see far deeper cuts than others, and groups with lobbying power, like those in the travel industry who want to avoid airport delays, are already trying to escape potential rollbacks.

"There's this move in D.C. to try to lobby to be exempted," Stegman said. "For low-income [services], they're not going to have the same pull."

And sequester is only one issue, he added. Low-income people could also face serious cuts to food assistance programs, for example, and larger discussions about priorities don't always aim to protect the nation's most vulnerable.

It's hard to tell exactly which programs will see cuts in the coming years, he said, but the fact that lawmakers seem to be looking at this as a "long-term reality" is worrisome.