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You May Not Be Feeling the Effects of the Sequester But Guess Who Is

Children from Head Start

Photo of Head Start preschoolers in Virginia. Image provided courtesy of Flickr user: VAStateParksStaff

Sequestration is causing considerable suffering for many low-income families.

By Roberta Downing, PhD (Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest Directorate – Government Relations Office)

How is your housing situation? Do you know where you’re going to sleep tonight? What about your meals? Do you know what you (and your children if you have them) are eating for dinner or whether your home will be heated on this chilly December day?

For millions of low-income Americans – working families with children, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans — the above questions do not have stable, consistent answers. Roughly 15% of Americans live in poverty (i.e., have an income of under $19,000 per year for a family of three), including 22% of all American children. In the midst of extremely trying life circumstances, low-income families are facing increased hardship from the effects of the sequester: across-the-board cuts to a large swatch of government programs including those that provide food, heat, and shelter to the poor.

What is the sequester?

Think back to August 2011. To end the first of many standoffs over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which was signed into law by the President. In that legislation, Congress cut discretionary spending by roughly $1 trillion dollars over ten years to reduce the federal deficit. Discretionary spending comprises most of the programs that we think of when we think of the federal government: funding for education, scientific research, environmental protection, law enforcement, transportation, foreign aid, defense, national parks, and other governmental functions (entitlement programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid were exempted).

The Budget Control Act also imposed “sequestration,” or across-the-board cuts that would take place unless Congress found a way to avoid them. The threat of sequestration was meant to force bipartisan compromise on a deficit reduction plan. At the time, sequestration was considered such a savage trigger with cuts that were so indiscriminate and harmful, it was expected that Congress would never allow them to take place. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to find agreement on deficit reduction and has pulled that very trigger with disastrous effects on Americans living in poverty.

Effects on the Poorest Families

Sequestration went into effect for the first time earlier this year, causing considerable suffering for many low-income families. Some of these harmful effects have been invisible to those not directly impacted. For example:

  1. Sequestration cut services for 57,000 poor children participating in Head Start, a federal antipoverty program that provides early learning, day care, health care, and referral services for poor families with young children.

  2. Cuts to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (also known as “LIHEAP”) prevented 300,000 households from receiving heating or cooling assistance in the last year.

  3. Indian reservations, which face some of the highest poverty rates in the country (and high rates of suicide and infant mortality), took particularly hard hits, with damaging cuts to the Indian Health Service, housing, schools, law enforcement, and mental health services.

  4. Sequestration allowed an estimated 40,000 to 65,000 fewer families to access housing vouchers in the past year and 185,000 low-income families could lose vouchers by the end of 2014, if sequestration is not stopped.

All of these programs traditionally have been underfunded, even before sequestration. Another round of sequestration cuts could go into effect for the next fiscal year if Congress does not find an alternative deficit reduction plan. Congress should not be looking to the poorest Americans to shoulder the burden of deficit reduction. These programs are the last place to find deficit savings.

Our House and Senate leaders face a December 13 budget deadline. They have said that one of their goals is to replace sequestration with another set of policies to reduce the deficit but we do not know if they will be able to find agreement.

What can you do?

Take action! Contact your members of Congress. Tell them to protect low-income programs in budget negotiations. Tell them that antipoverty programs have suffered enough under sequestration. Do you know, work, or volunteer with low-income families? If so, share your stories with your Senators and Representative. Tell them how people in your community have been hurt by budget cuts and that the poorest families should not be harmed in the name of deficit reduction.

Follow APA’s lead and speak out: APA’s CEO, Norman B. Anderson, PhD, sent a letter to members of the House and Senate budget conference committee, urging them to take a balanced approach to deficit reduction to do away with sequestration.


Roberta Downing, PhD is a Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer with the APA Public Interest Directorate Government Relations Office. Dr. Downing is a former APA Congressional Fellow (2004-2005), working for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. She was also a healthcare staffer for Senator Brown of Ohio. Most recently, Dr. Downing was a Senior Legislative Associate at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


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