Just say no: Sequestration hurts families

The sequester principle  that a sword of Damocles hanging over Congress and the White House would produce good public policy that reasoned debate could not — never made any sense. It hardly matters who thought of it at this point. The good news is that it is a man-made disaster for which a man-made solution is ready at hand — just say “no” to the across-the-board cuts contained in the 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act. Repeal them and start over.

If the sequester provisions are not repealed, the consequences are indeed dire, even if they take effect slowly. Yes, it is true that the day after the sequester occurs (March 1), the sky will not fall. It will just begin falling. Over the next seven months alone, the cuts will reduce defense spending by $55 billion and nondefense discretionary spending by $27 billion. At stake is a slowdown in economic growth that could cost up to 1.4 million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office and an increase in the unemployment rate that would bring that figure back up from 7.9 percent to 9.1 percent.

But the most vulnerable among us would be the most drastically affected. That's what happens when cuts are applied across the board. And they aren't really across the board — some programs are cut entirely while others escape relatively unscathed. The rich and the poor may each experience a cut of some sort. But for the rich, the impact is inconsequential; for the poor, it is catastrophic. An analysis of the cuts translates the dollars into people, and it is clear the impact spreads far and wide.

It starts with children. Education would be cut $2.3 billion. Title I grants to local education agencies would serve 1.2 million fewer students. Cuts to special education would end funding for nearly 296,000 children with special needs and result in jobs losses for up to 7,200 teachers and staff. Early-childhood education will be reduced by nearly $600 million, including $425 million less for Head Start, cutting enrollment by 70,000 preschoolers. Block grants to the states that help fund childcare would lose $121 million, dropping 30,000 to 50,000 children from child care assistance.

More than $350 million will be cut from child-nutrition programs. About 600,000 of the nine million low-income mothers and their children who get supplemental food and health care assistance from the Women, Infants, and Children program would be dropped.

Reduced funds to state block grants for maternal and child health would deny help to 4.58 million children, women, and families, while the $243 million cut to children's health programs would be reduce the number of children vaccinated by 144,000.

Other cuts are also deeply harmful. Reductions to housing assistance will take more than 110,000 families off Section 8 housing vouchers that help pay most of their rent. More than 100,000 homeless people will lose access to housing and emergency shelters as a result of a cut of $100 million in housing assistance. Low income heating assistance will be cut by $285 million. Those with AIDS will lose housing assistance and access to benefits from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. Seniors will receive four million fewer home-delivered meals. A description of the chaos of the sequester could go on and on.

Congress must come to its senses before the country suffers a completely self-inflicted grievous wound that weakens our economy and imposes gratuitous hardship on the least fortunate. The federal budget — how we choose to allocate the resources we hold in common — is a moral document. It reflects our priorities, and those priorities must reflect our values. The government must first provide for the women, children, and families among us that desperately need our help. To let the budget process break down so badly, with such immoral implications for so many, is a stain on our country and a bludgeon to our future.

Nancy K. Kaufman is CEO of the National Council for Jewish Woman, and for 20 years served as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston.

Obama to governors: Tell Congress to stop spending cuts

President Barack Obama urged state governors on Feb. 25 to pressure Congress to prevent $85 billion in across-the-board government spending cuts from going into effect on March 1, saying he is willing to reach a compromise with Republicans.

But the president gave no indication that he would try to start negotiations or take steps to blunt the effect of the cuts. He bemoaned what he described as a confrontational atmosphere in Washington, where budget battles have provoked one near crisis after another since the summer of 2011.

“Some people in Congress reflexively oppose any idea I put forward,” he said before a meeting with governors at the White House.

Officials in his administration continued a week-long effort to portray what they describe as the dire consequences of the cuts to popular programs.

The latest warning came from Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, who said the cuts — known as a “sequestration” — threatened to slow research on cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and development of a new flu vaccine, among other things.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have scheduled a brief news conference for 4 p.m. EST on Monday to discuss the cuts, but they are not expected to announce any new initiatives, according to a senior House Republican aide.

“Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary automatic budget cuts to kick in that will slow our economy, eliminate jobs and leave a lot of folks who are already pretty thinly stretched scrambling to figure what do,” the president told the governors on Monday.

With the deadline drawing closer, Obama asked the governors, who are in Washington for their annual meeting, to persuade Congress to come to terms with the administration and break a stalemate over taxes and spending.

“While you are in town, I hope you will speak with your congressional delegation and remind them in no uncertain terms exactly what is at stake,” the president said. “These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off any time with just a little bit of compromise.”

The White House has sought to highlight in recent weeks in stark terms the disruptions that would result if the $85 billion in spending cuts go into effect as scheduled March 1.

Obama has asked Congress to buy more time for a broad budget deal with a short-term measure that boosts revenues by ending some tax breaks that benefit the wealthiest Americans.

But congressional Republicans have rejected his call for more tax revenues, saying their agreement in early January to let taxes rise for those earning above $450,000 a year was the only concession they are willing to make in the form of higher taxes.

Republicans have long sought deep government spending cuts, and while the sequestration was originally designed to be so harsh that it would force both sides to compromise, many lawmakers appear ready to let them go into effect.

Senate Democrats have put forward a plan that focuses on those tax loopholes, and this week Republicans are expected to propose alternatives.