Sequestration a “Pittance?” Tell That to Those in Need of Help

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larry1235 /

March 3, 2013; Source: New York Times

Even with programs such as food stamps and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) exempted from sequestration cuts, there is no doubt that anti-poverty programs will be hit by the cuts that started rolling out at the beginning of this month. In the New York Times, Annie Lowrey describes the landscape of cuts to hit the poor. Those cuts include programs such as housing vouchers (as NPQ described here yesterday), the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program of food and baby formula for low income families (as NPQ recently noted here), emergency homeless shelter services from HUD (with cuts potentially removing as many as 100,000 people from shelters), public housing, job training for the unemployed, and foreclosure prevention assistance.

As we reported yesterday regarding the impacts of sequestration on AmeriCorps, the percentage budget cuts do not simply translate into automatic, across-the-board reductions by agency administrators and grant recipients. Lowrey describes some of the ideas of Adrianne Todman, the executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority, who indicated that her strategy might be to defer maintenance for a while, leave staff vacancies open, not fill public housing units that become vacant as tenants move out, and not roll over housing vouchers for families on the waiting list. In King County, Wash., the director of the county’s public housing authority, Stephen Norman, made an immediate sequestration day decision to cease issuing new housing vouchers to people on that region’s waiting list.

To bring some context to these potential local agency reactions, know that in July of 2011, the King County housing voucher waiting list contained a pool of 25,306 applicants. The affordable housing waiting list in Washington, D.C. is 66,297 individuals and families. The Washington Post’s Candace Wheeler reported on the huge waiting list last fall, noting the story of Ceola Lewis, who had been waiting for a housing voucher for 37 years and, as of last November, was still waiting. In normal times, families “cycle through” their Section 8 housing vouchers in perhaps 18 to 24 months, but during the recession, families have tended to hold onto their vouchers longer because of their prolonged inability to afford private housing. With resources shrinking, it seems likely that the cycle will be attenuated further.

Congressional conservatives believe that cutting $85 billion out of a $3.6 trillion budget—less than 2.4 cents from every dollar of federal spending—won’t undo federal programs or drive the economy into increased joblessness. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) contrasted President Barack Obama’s characterization of the sequestration cuts as likely to “eviscerate” federal domestic spending with his own analysis: “I believe the sequester is a pittance.” The specific implication of Paul’s statement is technically correct; a couple of pennies of federal spending cut from the federal budget won’t in itself drive the economy into a tailspin nor wipe out programs such as housing vouchers. But go tell Ceola Lewis or others in similar situations that, as a result of sequestration cuts this year—cuts that are slated to continue for the rest of the decade—they can expect to keep on waiting…and waiting…and waiting for housing vouchers. —Rick Cohen