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The Sequester: Cuts And Consequences
5:14 pm
Tue February 26, 2013

Advocates Warn Sequester Could Mean Big Cuts For The Low-Income

Originally published on Tue February 26, 2013 6:05 pm

Many programs affecting low-income Americans — like food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — are exempt from across-the-board spending cuts set to go into effect March 1.

But many other programs are not, and that has service providers scrambling to figure out how the budget stalemate in Washington might affect those who rely on government aid.

Kathy Yowell is sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of her living room, waiting for her daily delivery from Meals on Wheels of Takoma Park, Md. Today she's getting fish, green beans and spinach, along with a chicken sandwich, fruit, salad, juice and a bagel.

Yowell, 82, says the service is a lifeline, especially after she had spinal surgery last August. Without the help, she says, "I wouldn't be back in my house. I'd be in assisted living, and I don't think I would last very long in a place like that."

That's the case for many of the millions of seniors who are served by Meals on Wheels nationwide. Jill Feasley, who runs the Takoma Park program, says most of her clients are homebound and alone. They need both food and someone to check in on them.

But if automatic spending cuts go into effect this Friday, the Obama administration warns, seniors could get 4 million fewer meals this year alone.

Still, Feasley says her program "wouldn't feel the cuts immediately." Federal funds cover only about one-quarter of her costs, she says, so she has a little flexibility.

"I can dance a lot of dances," Feasley says. "I can try and raise more money from private donations. I can try and serve more hamburger." Anything, she says, to avoid cutting actual meals.

Feasley does worry what the budget impasse will mean for her ability to raise funds in this Washington, D.C., suburb. Many of her donors are government workers and are facing potential furloughs if the sequester kicks in.

Fear And Uncertainty

Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of the Meals on Wheels Association of America, says the sequester would be "devastating."

Many local programs are in a lot worse shape than Feasley's, she says. They have long waiting lists and are already dealing with big cuts in state and local funding. Hollander thinks as many as 19 million meals could be lost.

"I can tell you, people are feeling it now," Hollander says. "And a lot of that is just because of the uncertainty. And, you know, uncertainty leads to fear."

And fear is what many groups serving the poor are reporting. For everything from Head Start and low-income housing to child care subsidies, advocates say across-the-board spending cuts mean that hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose benefits they need to get by.

But Republicans and others say these dire predictions are overblown and that they're really an effort to generate public pressure on them to raise taxes and avert the sequester.

Cutting, Or Slowing, Growth?

"We're hearing that this is going to be massive, savage cuts," says Michael Tanner, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute. "We're not even talking about actual cuts in spending. What we're talking about is reductions in the rate of growth of spending. After the sequester is fully in place for 10 years, we will spend $2 trillion more than we're spending today."

Maybe so, if you're looking at the entire budget. But the Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, says cuts in nutrition aid for low-income women, infants and children will be real if the sequester occurs.

"If I lose one mother off of this program who is at nutrition risk, there's a real health consequence to her and to her unborn child," Greenaway says. "And the long-term consequence for this nation in reducing health care costs are significant because those contribute to the deficit."

So, he says, if the goal is to reduce government spending overall, these cuts make no sense at all.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Washington is counting down the days of those large automatic across-the-board spending cuts. We were just hearing about the sequester that's set to go into effect March 1. That's this Friday. Some programs that benefit low-income Americans such as food stamps, Medicaid and welfare are exempt from those cuts. But many other programs are not. So service providers are scrambling to figure out how the budget stalemate will affect people who rely on government aid. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Kathy. How are you doing?

KATHY YOWELL: Pretty good.

FESSLER: Kathy Yowell was sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of her living room waiting for her daily delivery from Meals on Wheels of Takoma Park, Maryland. Today, she's getting fish, green beans and spinach along with a chicken sandwich, fruit, salad, juice and a bagel.

YOWELL: You want to just put that in the kitchen so you'll have a place to sit down?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sure. I'd be glad to.

FESSLER: At age 82, Yowell says this service is a lifeline, especially after she had spinal surgery last August. Without the help...

YOWELL: I wouldn't be back in my house. I'd be in assisted living. And I don't think I would last very long in a place like that.

FESSLER: And that's the case for many of the millions of seniors served nationally by Meals on Wheels. Jill Feasley, who runs the Takoma Park program, says most of her clients are homebound and alone. They need food as well as someone to check in on them. But the Obama administration warns if automatic spending cuts go into effect this Friday, seniors could get four million fewer meals this year alone. Still, says Feasley...

JILL FEASLEY: We wouldn't feel the cuts immediately.

FESSLER: She says federal funds cover only about a quarter of her costs, so she has a little flexibility.

FEASLEY: I can dance a lot of dances. You know, I can try and raise more money from private donations. I can try and serve more hamburger.

FESSLER: Anything to avoid cutting actual meals. But Feasley does worry what the budget impasse will mean for her ability to raise funds in this Washington, D.C. suburb. Many of her donors are government workers facing furloughs.

ELLIE HOLLANDER: It's going to be devastating.

FESSLER: Ellie Hollander is president and CEO of the Meals on Wheels Association of America. She says many local programs are in a lot worse shape than Feasley's. They have long waiting lists and are already dealing with big cuts in state and local funding. She thinks as many as 19 million meals could be lost.

HOLLANDER: I can tell you, people are feeling it now. And a lot of that is just because of the uncertainty. And, you know, uncertainly leads to fear.

FESSLER: And fear is what many groups serving the poor are reporting. They say for everything from Head Start to low-income housing to child care subsidies, across-the-board spending cuts mean that hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose benefits they need to get by. But Republicans say these dire predictions are overblown, that they're really an effort to generate public pressure on them to raise taxes and avert what's known as the sequester. Michael Tanner is a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute

MICHAEL TANNER: We're hearing that this is going to be massive, savage cuts. We're not even talking about actual cuts in spending. What we're talking about is reductions in the rate of growth of spending. You know, after the sequester is fully in place for 10 years, we will spend $2 trillion more than we're spending today.

FESSLER: Maybe so if you're looking at the entire budget, but the Reverend Douglas Greenaway of the National WIC Association says if the sequester occurs, cuts in nutrition for low-income women, infants and children will be real.

REVEREND DOUGLAS GREENAWAY: If I lose one mother off of this program, who is at nutrition risk, there's a real health consequence to her and to her unborn child. And the long-term consequence for this nation in reducing health care costs are significant because those contribute to the deficit.

FESSLER: So he argues if the goal is to reduce government spending overall, these cuts make no sense at all. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.