The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The sequester’s attack on the poor

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Few would disagree that the federal government needs to reduce its massive deficits. But at whose expense?

If Washington lawmakers are unable to step back from the brink of Friday’s scheduled budget “sequester,” low-income children and families will be among the many Americans hurt by this supremely foolish and cowardly exercise in policy making.

Photo: Getty Images/Rubberball

It all seemed so far away and unreal back in the summer of 2011, when President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner came up with the hare-brained idea of automatic cuts to defense and domestic discretionary spending at the beginning of 2013 if no longer-term budget deal could be reached. The January 1st “fiscal cliff” arrived, only for our bumbling budgeteers on New Year’s Eve to kick the can down the road another two months.

Well, here we are. The March 1 sequester is upon us, and $44 billion in cuts over the next six months will begin to take effect, with roughly half coming from the Pentagon and the rest coming from all manner of domestic programs. Mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as Food Stamps, are exempt.

What does this mean? While Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul called the sequester a “yawn,” it will be anything but that to the 600,000 poor children and mothers who will lose WIC nutrition aid or the 70,000 children who will no longer be able to attend Head Start programs, according to the Coalition on Human Needs. Other initiatives that help the neediest Americans will also be slashed: 125,000 low-income families will lose rental vouchers; four million fewer Meals on Wheels will be served to the elderly; more than 370,000 adults and children will lose treatment for mental illness; and aid to the 23 million low-income Americans who get help with their heating bills will be reduced.

Of course, it’s not just the poor who will suffer, as the finger-pointers in both parties are quick to mention. The FBI and air-traffic controllers will see cuts. So will defense contractors. Federal employees may be furloughed. The long-term unemployed will lose benefits. And those who crunch the macroeconomic numbers say that the sequester’s ripple effects could throw as many as 700,000 Americans out of work.

These cuts come on top of a 7.6% reduction in federal funds to states since 2010. They also exclude even more draconian cuts proposed in the House Republican budget of $810 billion to Medicaid and $134 billion for Food Stamps over the next 10 years.

Few would disagree that the federal government needs to reduce its massive deficits. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in potential revenues that could be collected if we went after overseas tax havens and closed corporate tax loopholes. A 5.6% surtax on those earning more than $1 million a year could raise $450 billion over 10 years—as much as all of the domestic discretionary cuts slated under the sequester. Spending could also be cut—not only for defense but, most effectively, by reducing the astronomical healthcare costs that have driven Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal health programs to devour $800 billion a year. This is more than all domestic discretionary spending and more than even the Pentagon.

Pretending to achieve fiscal responsibility by cutting relatively small programs that benefit the poor and the middle class is dishonest and doesn’t work. And budget-cutting by sequester is not only a way for legislators to shirk responsibility, but an inhumane attack on poor and working Americans.

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