September 30, 2013
The federal budget for fiscal year 2013 expires September 30, and a new one is nowhere in sight. The arbitrary and capricious cuts of the sequester begun in March are slated to continue for ten years unless Congress acts. The national debt ceiling must be raised in mid-October, and a minority in the House wants to defund the new health care law or shut down the government and/or refuse to pay the nation's debts. We are stuck in a recurring nightmare inflicted by a few individuals with an agenda of undermining government no matter the cost. That nightmare is ignored by too many who seem oblivious to the real consequences of this stalemate for those less fortunate.
What's missing from this picture? The implications for ordinary people, who are faced with wage stagnation, home devaluation, continuing high unemployment, and in many cases massive state budget cuts to programs they desperately need, including public education! The litany of cuts is growing daily and happening largely under the radar. The fact that sequester cuts are designed to gather steam over time has made them invisible from the lofty perch of many national pundits.
But for those affected, the cuts are happening at ground level. The Coalition for Human Needs compiles an ongoing account of sequester effects. Reduced funding for Head Start means 57,000 fewer pre-schoolers will be served by a critical school-readiness program. Cuts to federal aid to public schools can't be absorbed, say school superintendents. School systems that receive extra federal money to help educate the children of service members housed in base communities around the country are especially hard hit, as are funds for reservation schools serving Native American children.
The wheels of the criminal justice system will grind even slower because the sequester forces cuts in the reimbursement of lawyers hired to make it work, say federal judges and the federal courts, already burdened by vacancies, are reeling under cuts from sequester. Efforts to rehabilitate offenders or treat drug abuse are suffering.
Programs such as Meals on Wheels, help for low-income students in preparing for college, low-income housing vouchers, free emergency lifeline service to seniors, weatherization programs, community health centers -- all have been significantly affected. For those in need of these services, the individual impact is huge. A child who isn't ready for school will earn less over a lifetime, as will a low-income student who doesn't make it to college. A low-income couple living in a home that costs them an exorbitant amount to heat won't be spending money in the local economy that fuels job growth.
Even the cuts with indirect effects, such as the $1.7 billion taken from the National Institutes of Health or funds deducted from other scientific research, can be translated into lives lost that might have been saved by new treatments for deadly diseases.
What too many fail to grasp is that to say we are all in it together is not just a platitude but an economic and social reality. Policies that make people more productive, help people spend money locally, and upgrade our infrastructure have an impact throughout the economy and mean a more prosperous future for everyone, not just those immediately affected.
That is why the spectacle of our continuing gridlock on the federal budget is so depressing. And it doesn't seem to be reality-based. Refusing to allow the federal government to pay the interest on its debt does not undo the fact that the money has already been borrowed and spent. Ever rising health care costs spurred in part by having so many uninsured -- never mind more people actually dying because they lack health care -- aren't reversed by defunding the new health care law. At the same time, the federal deficit has declined dramatically since the worst days of the great recession because of cuts already made. At this point further budget cutting is a purely ideological exercise, whose practical effect is not more growth, but more stagnation, as many studies show.
Passing a fair and equitable federal budget is a moral statement and a moral imperative. It reflects not only a commitment to fiscal sanity that will comfort investors, banks, businesses, and other economic interests, it also will bring stability and hope to millions. These are our neighbors and family members who are seeking to pay their bills every month or aspiring to improve their lives through the dint of their own hard work and furthering their education.
The time is short, but Congress must act. What it needs to do now is no mystery and requires no hearings -- restore the cuts and pass a sane budget that bolsters those in need rather than punishing them in the name of fiscal austerity.
Nancy K. Kaufman is CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. Follow her on Twitter.