Sequester Takes Toll on Social Safety Net Nonprofits

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April 22, 2013; News & Record

Interesting, isn’t it, how sequestration has faded from public debate? It may be that the sequester was overplayed by the White House and its Republican opponents in Congress, with the White House hinting at dire consequences for the nation’s fragile economic recovery and the Republicans suggesting that cutting government funding would actually boost economic activity.

We know where the sequester has had its impact: on services to the poor and people in need, of the kind typically delivered by nonprofits acting solo or in partnership with governmental agencies. No one, it seems, is keeping tabs on the impact. Perhaps that’s because the sequester cuts across the board of discretionary federal spending with what appears to be mostly a single-digit percentage cut, which may be seen as too small to be all that devastating to nonprofit programs. The sequester hits too many budget lines, so think-tankers assume that the consequences are just too diffuse to be worth counting.

For nonprofits with services to deliver, it’s a different story. Maybe it’s considered trite to say so, but the toll can be measured in terms of people who don’t get services they need in this lackluster, inconsistent economic recovery that has left tens of millions of Americans on the sidelines without jobs, with unaffordable mortgage payments, and with mounting healthcare expenses.

The city of Greensboro, North Carolina, is anticipating a 10-percent cut in its Community Development Block Grant program, which will be absorbed in disproportionately higher ways in the nonprofit part of the city’s $1.9 million CDBG allocation, as anyone who knows how these funds get allocated could guess. On the West Coast, in Santa Barbara County, California, the CDBG cuts have already filtered down to nonprofits. The Santa Maria City Council, for example, faced a request of $18,000 in CDBG funds from the Community Action Commission to enable it to continue providing 200 meals a day to seniors; the Block Grant Advisory Committee recommended $4,000, but in the end, due to sequestration, the CAC was zeroed out. The same happened to the grant request of the Alzheimer’s Foundation.

Greensboro’s Head Start program, managed by Guilford Child Development, will shut down a half-dozen classrooms in August, meaning 50 fewer slots for three- and four-year-old children come the new school year. In Kern County, California, the Community Action Partnership that runs 44 Head Start sites (serving 2,592 children) is taking a different approach to adjusting to sequestration, lopping two weeks off the Head Start educational year. Cutting the Head Start instruction time will save the Partnership $800,000, but it still has to find another $1.2 million in cost savings to adjust to the impact of sequestration. California receives the nation’s largest Head Start allocation, about 14 percent of the nation’s total Head Start spending, meaning that a large number of the 112,000 children in California Head Start programs might find the help and education they get from the program denied due to sequestration.

This week, however, when you look for information about the impact of the sequester, you’ll find a focus on the furloughs of air traffic controllers and the consequent flight delays in many of the nation’s airports. Business and vacation travelers will be inconvenienced, and there will be some ripples in the economy due to less economic activity. Stories about reduced Head Start instruction, cutbacks in other human services delivery, delays in CDBG- and HOME-funded affordable housing construction, and rehabilitation get relegated to the category of “poor-me” nonprofit stories. Just more nonprofits bemoaning their fates, and don’t they always do that? Sorry, but no. Nonprofits usually make programs work despite historic, systemic, government underfunding as it is, before the advent of sequestration. Sequestration simply takes a chunk out of their programs, leaving poor people without the help and support they need.—Rick Cohen

  • Timothy Tiernan

    Great points, Mr. Cohen. The article deeply resonated with me.

    You wrote: “We know where the sequester has had its impact: on services to the poor and people in need, of the kind typically delivered by nonprofits acting solo or in partnership with governmental agencies. No one, it seems, is keeping tabs on the impact. Perhaps that’s because the sequester cuts across the board of discretionary federal spending with what appears to be mostly a single-digit percentage cut, which may be seen as too small to be all that devastating to nonprofit programs. The sequester hits too many budget lines, so think-tankers assume that the consequences are just too diffuse to be worth counting.”

    Emphasize “so think-tankers assume that the consequences are just too diffuse to be worth counting” – absolutely. Discussions of the U.S. economy almost inevitably veer to the macro standpoint (e.g., to frame it in a hyperbolic nutshell: ‘well, overall, we can weather this single-digit cut just fine, as this graph will show from years past’ – the emphasis being that the economic ship is still sailing fine even if a few people were thrown overboard by a couple minor rogue waves). From my experience, mainstream news sources would rather report on disgruntled travelers dealing from the consequences of sequester-related furloughs than with the poor not receiving meals because of that “poor me” point you bring up, and because we can’t handle bad news for very long – and this would not be profitable for outlets.

    Which is too bad (that’s an understatement), because we should worry about the whole scope of reality, from the macro standpoint to the meal that someone is missing.

    Thanks again.

  • David Coulter

    Shameful, because those in elected positions, still manage to pull their “Entitlements” like health insurance, and a retirement second to none while the rest of us do without. They just do not get it!