What Will Sequestration Actually Do?

Sequestration is a series of federal budget cuts.

March 4, 2013, 11:57 AM

March 4, 2013— -- Sequester is a popular - or not so popular, really - word in Washington, D.C. right now. But what is it, and why does it matter?

Sequestration is a big word for a series of automatic federal budget cuts that were agreed upon by Congress and the White House way back during the 2011 debt limit debate. They were intended to avert a debt-ceiling crisis, and few at the time thought they would ever actually take effect. The cuts will total about $85 million over the next seven months. While they are across the board cuts that will affect everything from defense spending to disability services, they won't immediately hit all programs. Some programs specifically designed to help the nation's most vulnerable will be spared, including Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

"We're not going to shut down the government," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said during a meeting last week with reporters. "Sequestration doesn't do that."

It does, however, place some very real restrictions on what federal entities are able to do. Here's what to expect:

1. Social Security Checks

People will still receive their Social Security checks, but the number of federal workers processing them will be limited, so it may take longer for the checks to arrive. According to Hoyer, a "slowdown" in delivery of checks will be one of the first noticeable impacts. People who call the Social Security Administration may also face longer waits on the line and processing times may increase.

Latinos may be hit especially hard. According to Latino advocacy organization League of United Latin American Citizens, "Because a large number of Hispanics tend to have lower wages and less pension coverage, over three-quarters of Latinos rely on Social Security for at least half of their income. Approximately 45 percent rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income, while about 38 percent rely on it for all of their income."

2. Food Testing

The number of food safety inspections could decrease. The Food and Drug Administration is set to reduce the number of food inspections, which will directly counter implementation of a new law designed to increase the number of inspections, according to CBS. Meat inspections will be particularly affected. The Agriculture Department handles the inspection of meat packing plants, and inspectors must be present for the plants to operate. Inspectors may be furloughed or expected to handle more plants than normal, meaning the department may not always be able to have workers at each plant. When the workers are gone, the plants will have to shut down.

3. Housing Vouchers

Programs that provide vouchers for housing to poor families will be hit. As the New York Times reported, that could leave about 125,000 people at risk of becoming homeless. Other programs that provide temporary shelter and housing assistance to homeless people will also be limited, meaning people who are currently homeless may end up back on the streets.

4. Job Training Programs

Federal job training programs could see hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts. The training programs are designed to teach the unemployed skills that will help them find jobs. Minorities are especially likely to be impacted by the cuts. The Hispanic unemployment rate is close to 10 percent--well above the national average--and many Latinos rely on the programs to learn valuable job skills. Long-term unemployment benefits could also be slashed.

5. Head Start

Federal early childhood education program Head Start will face cuts that force administrators to limit the number of spaces available. Latino children make up more than a third of the program's participants, so the cuts will disproportionately impact Hispanics. Sequestration will also reduce funding for programs aimed at children with disabilities.

"There is no reason that 70,000 kids should get kicked out of Head Start preschools," Janet Murguía, President and CEO of Latino advocacy organization the National Council of La Raza said in a statement. "We are shooting ourselves in the foot every day that we allow these cuts to continue."

6. Federal Employees

Many federal workers will be hit with required furloughs once the cuts take effect. As the Huffington Post pointed out, "More than half of the nation's 2.1 million government workers may be required to take furloughs if agencies are forced to trim budgets. At the Pentagon alone that could mean 800,000 civilian workers would be off for 22 days each, spread across more than five months – and lose 20 percent of their pay over that period." The furloughs will hit more than just Defense Department employees. Seasonal park workers will not be hired because the national parks will be open for limited amounts of time, air traffic controllers will see reduced hours, and workers at Arlington National Cemetery could be hit with furloughs, which could tighten the number of veteran funerals carried out each day.

Can We Fix It?

Even though some of the initial cuts have taken effect, Congress still has a chance to work out a deal. And if they don't, cuts that may seem drastic right now will seem minor. On March 27, the Continuing Resolution that funds the discretionary operations of the federal government runs out.

As Slate noted recently, "When that happens, it's lights out—quite literally. There are some exceptions for emergency personnel and entitlement programs (think Medicare) [sic] keep functioning, but when the CR expires, the government shuts down. All 'non-essential' federal employees are put on furlough, and programs simply stop functioning. The National Parks will close down, and the Centers for Disease Control won't track infections. Visa and passport applications won't be processed. Nor will new applications for disability benefits. Regulatory agencies will take a break."

The deadline isn't actually March 27, either. Congress has scheduled a two-week Easter Recess for March 22, so lawmakers will need to work out a solution before they leave town.