Issue May 7, 2013

Slash and burn

A look at how sequestration will disproportionately affect low-income families, children and the elderly across Kentucky

As the deadline for the deep federal budget cuts known as sequestration passed in early March, Sen. Mitch McConnell stood before reporters at the Louisville International Airport and literally chuckled at the notion of such cuts having a negative impact on Americans.

“This is really quite a modest reduction,” McConnell said. “We ought to be doing a lot more than this.”

The seeds of sequestration — $85 billion in 5 percent across-the-board cuts split between the defense and non-defense budgets for fiscal year 2013, continuing through 2021 — were planted in the summer of 2011, when Republicans threatened to not raise the debt ceiling and risk America defaulting on its debt. The solution was the Budget Control Act, forcing both sides to come to a reasonable compromise before 2013 to lower the deficit and avoid sequestration, which most assumed no one would be crazy enough to allow to happen.

But that is exactly what happened this March, followed by Republicans mocking the Democrats’ dire predictions of sequestration crippling the country. By mid-April, Congress suddenly roared with displeasure at a long-expected side effect of the cuts: Long flight delays caused by furloughs of traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Just before Congress recessed, they quickly passed a budget fix to end the dilemma, assuring a quick flight back to their home districts.

But while flight delays appear to be the only immediate effect of sequestration in the eyes of many in Congress, looming cuts on the horizon will soon threaten a large population across the country who can afford it the least.

Beginning in the late summer and fall, low-income families, children and the elderly will disproportionately feel these dramatic budget cuts. Teachers will be laid off, children will be dropped from Head Start programs, child care services will be cut for working families, job training for the unemployed will be slashed, and fewer seniors will be visited by Meals on Wheels, just to name a few of the far-reaching impacts

School boards, government agencies and social-service groups in Kentucky — already faced with budget cuts in recent years — are bracing for additional layoffs, furloughs and cuts in services brought about by sequestration in the coming months. In the meantime, the individuals who rely on these services can only hope Congress changes course on sequestration.

Of the $81 million in sequestration cuts faced by Kentucky, roughly $32 million will be in education, as school boards in every corner of the state brace for the 5-10 percent reductions to come.

The Kentucky Department of Education is expecting a $12.4 million cut in Title I programs (serving 20,000 fewer low-income students), a $7.7 million cut from special education (serving 4,000 fewer students), and a $6.4 million cut from Head Start programs (with 1,000 fewer low-income children receiving pre-school services).

While individual school districts won’t know the precise figures until late May, they’ve already warned teachers and staff of impending layoffs, which some estimate could reach in the hundreds. Jefferson County Public Schools is expecting to have their Title I program hit hard with a 9.9 percent cut, totaling $3.6 million.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, says that unlike other powerful industries able to lobby Congress to avoid cuts, children will be the most prominent victims of sequestration to emerge by fall.

“There is a trickle-down effect for kids that is more of a crock-pot than a microwave in its impact,” Brooks says. “There is a real risk that since the sky didn’t fall immediately, folks will be lulled into a sense that ‘We’re going to be OK.’ For kids, I think the second phase of sequestration outrage could be in full gear by Labor Day.”

Education is far from the only area where children in Kentucky, especially those in poverty, will be adversely affected. An estimated 9,100 children and mothers are expected to be dropped from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and 1,350 fewer children will receive vaccines.

Funding for child care, which has already been devastated by $59.3 million worth of cuts to the Kentucky Department of Community Based Services since 2009, will also receive an additional blow. On April 1, the agency froze all new applicants from receiving child care credits, and by July 1 they plan on dramatically lowering the income eligibility for a family of four from $33,075 to $22,050, resulting in 14,300 fewer children being served per month. Once sequestration hits their budget, 500 more children will be cut from the program, putting additional strain on working families and child care providers.

“Parents are going to have to make some difficult decisions about whether they can even afford to continue working,” says Janet Masterson, assistant director of Louisville-based Community Coordinated Child Care. “Our fear is that many of the children are going to be cared for in settings that are less than desirable, if not harmful.”

Services for the elderly will also face severe cutbacks, particularly Meals on Wheels. The White House estimates that 4 million fewer meals will be delivered next year, while the Meals on Wheels Association of America puts the total figure of fewer meals provided at a much higher 19 million.

Barbara Gordon — director of social services at the Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency (KIPDA), which oversees state funds for Louisville and the surrounding six counties — says the Kentucky Department for Aging and Independent Living will face a 5.1 percent cut due to sequestration starting July 1. They expect to serve 12,411 fewer meals to seniors in the Louisville region, freezing new applicants despite an already long waiting list.

“By the very nature of our program, we’re serving the most vulnerable within that population, in terms of socioeconomic status,” Gordon says. “The impact is significant in that we are providing a meal to older adults who may have been without a meal if they didn’t receive it from us.”

The Department for Aging and Independent Living — which has already faced more than $700,000 in cuts over the last five years — will also have to scale back other services, such as providing transportation for doctor visits, legal services, and emergency in-home care.

Slashing such services for a rapidly growing elderly population will not only leave that community at risk, Gordon says, but lead to future fiscal problems for the state.

“Investing in our infrastructure will save the state money in the end as it relates to Medicare, Medicaid, reducing nursing facility stays and hospitalization,” Gordon says. “These programs have demonstrated to be effective to help people stay in their home, improve quality of life, and help people live longer.”

But sequestration cuts go even deeper. More than 16,000 fewer Kentuckians will receive job-training services, research funds will be cut at state universities, mental health services will be cut, the FDA will conduct fewer food inspections, and more than 5,000 civilian employees at Fort Knox will be furloughed.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd, who voted against the Budget Control Act of 2011 and wants to see it replaced with more sensible cuts, hopes that once Republicans begin to see the full effects by late summer — particularly on law enforcement agencies — they’ll sour on the sequester and work to find a solution.

“By then I hope we’ll have a national discussion of the fact that these cuts are not just for the next few months; this is for 10 years,” Yarmuth says. “And that’s when I think people are going to open their eyes. The pressure will be on some of these members to do something.”

Until such a day comes, Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul will continue to hope that these “modest” and “insignificant” cuts accelerate, not dissipate.