May 7, 2013; PBS Newshour

This might sound like more whimpering from the nonprofit sector about sequestration budget cuts that, as a small proportion of government expenditures, shouldn’t impact the economy much. If you think about the real people behind the numbers, though, sequestration matters deeply in terms of families not getting needed services and benefits.

It’s fortunate that public television stations are translating the sequester into human terms through their regular coverage, but many local agencies don’t really know what’s coming down the pike and get less than edifying information and instructions from their federal partners. To supplement the PBS coverage, we have found other sources reporting on the real-life human impact of the sequester:

  • Jonathan Weisman reported in the New York Times about Head Start grantees in towns from Texas to Maine and parts in between adjusting to the likely loss of Head Start slots for children. Weisman mentioned the unusual strategy of the Head Start program in Colorado Springs getting children to decorate empty chairs that could be sold off at $500 apiece to generate money to fill sequestration gaps, rather than eliminating slots for 142 children.
  • Despite assumptions by senior citizens that no programs for seniors would ever be cut, organizations in California that run senior services like adult day care, homemaker services, peer counseling and outreach, meals and other nutrition services, and family caregiver support are cutting back those programs because of sequestration cuts filtering down from federal agencies to state and local regrantmakers. Joyce Ellen Lippman, director of the Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens, said, “A 5- to 8-percent reduction is not going to close the program…But there will be people who are not served.” She knows, however, that more cuts are coming in the summer and the fall, after the current array of reductions is made.
  • In Montana, the Human Resources Council was putting several of its human service programs into the to-be-constructed Emma Park Community Center, but the project’s progress has been halted because of cutbacks in federal funds due to sequestration. The problem may not be the Department of Agriculture loan that is part of the overall financing of the community center, but cutbacks to HRC’s service programs, such as weatherization, LIHEAP, and homeownership assistance, could reduce the ability of the programs to pay their rent.
  • Although a lot of the coverage has focused on Head Start and Meals on Wheels, it is important to remember that the sequester hits discretionary spending across the board. In Missouri, for example, a career-counseling center in Warrensburg is one of five in the state slated to close due to budget cuts. In an example of the ripple effects of the sequester, a Maryland-based nonprofit called Melwood, which trains and places people with disabilities as custodians and landscapers at governmental facilities through contracts, has had to cut 60 employees and anticipates laying off another 60 as federal agencies scale back.
  • Most federal agencies that monitor and disburse federal funding are facing staff furloughs, which they are trying to implement through some sort of staggered schedule so that their entire body of work doesn’t come to a halt. ProPublica reports that the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees programs such as the Community Development Block Grants, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and Section 8 rent subsidies, found the complexities and the paperwork too daunting to navigate and decided simply to shut down for seven days beginning in May. That kind of decision will have its own ripple effect on the nonprofits that look to the agency for resources and guidance.

The fixes are pathetic. In some cases, like the air traffic controllers, agencies are granted flexibility because of the demands of the public—not poor people, but business travelers unhappy about the prospect of sitting on tarmacs. In others, the flexibility comes from a more general consensus about the need for the program, such as the flexibility granted the FBI and Customs and Border Protection enabling both agencies to sidestep furloughs. But who is looking to grant flexibility to sequester-hammered social programs? Does this cherry-picking process work? Wouldn’t it simply be better to repeal the sequester and deal with the budget, giving some thought to the decision of which programs to cut and which to protect? A nation that must depend on kids decorating chairs for sale in order to save the Head Start program is in pretty rough governmental shape.—Rick Cohen