It’s Day 90 of sequestration—the across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect March 1, which the Obama administration predicted would be devastating and conservatives insisted wouldn’t be so bad. Three months in, it’s worth asking how harmful the phased-in cuts have been—although that depends on whom you ask.
When sequestration cuts furloughed air-traffic controllers in April, airline travelers rose up in fury. Congress responded with a quick legislative fix that “unfurloughed” the controllers and returned flight delays to annoying, rather than infuriating, levels.
Likewise, when word got out that some national parks would face delayed openings because of sequestration, local chambers of commerce near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming raised almost $171,000 in private donations to allow the park to open by clearing snow from park roads and entrances. And a visitor center and natural preserve in Grand Teton National Park that would have been closed all summer were saved by wealthy private donors who contributed $116,000 so that both could open on time.
But other groups have not been so lucky. Sequestration cuts are forcing Head Start programs across the country to drop children from their ranks, despite research showing that every $1 invested in Head Start brings $9 in benefits to society. Cancer clinics have been forced to deny chemotherapy to elderly ill Americans because of cuts to Medicare. Schoolchildren on military bases and Native American reservations are suffering because of cuts to the Impact Aid program, which provides needed assistance to schools that have no local tax base. And domestic-violence victims have fewer places to turn because of funding cuts to shelters. Sequestration cuts mean fewer Meals on Wheels for the homebound and elderly, fewer dialysis treatments for sick patients, fewer vouchers for low-income housing, and more.
But even if you’re not in one of the groups described above, you’re not out of the woods. Sequestration’s cuts are so relentlessly broad and mindlessly indiscriminate that they will eventually affect us all. For instance, anyone affected by our nation’s increasingly extreme weather—from floods and tornadoes to hurricanes and wildfires—will see reductions in forecasting, warning systems, preparedness, and response because of cuts to agencies such as the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. And in the wake of last week’s horrific tornado in Oklahoma, crucial disaster relief and personnel depended on federal funding that is being slashed because of sequestration.
What’s more, we will all be affected by cuts to federal research and development, or R&D, programs that result in groundbreaking scientific and technological advances, such as the Internet, that spur economic growth. As Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, said of sequestration’s effect on R&D programs, “To put it kindly, this is an irrational approach to deficit reduction. To put it not so kindly, it is just plain stupid.”
Not only is it stupid, but also it’s immoral. A few weeks before sequestration took effect, a group of faith communities sent a public message to Congress, “Faithful Alternatives to Sequestration,” which decried any deficit-reduction plan that would increase poverty or place a greater burden on vulnerable Americans. These faith groups called for increased revenues through a more progressive, simpler tax code and urged Congress to replace sequestration’s mechanism with a “balanced approach that ensures that our collective responsibility to each other can and will be met.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan echoed these sentiments last month in noting Congress’s quick response to the air travelers versus its lack of response to the suffering of vulnerable children and families. “Budgets aren’t just numbers,” he said. “They reveal our value choices.”
Our policymakers don’t seem to be paying much attention to faithful Americans and advocates who are urging Congress to replace arbitrary spending cuts with a rational budget plan that promotes economic growth along with responsible spending. It’s too bad that the children of airline business travelers don’t attend Head Start programs. If they did, Congress might respond to their plight.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.