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If the sequester provisions are not repealed, the consequences are indeed dire, even if they take effect slowly.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.