Sequester Scarier Than Washington Post Claims

A catchy headline in a late-June issue of the Washington Post. “They said the sequester would be scary. Mostly they were wrong.”

“They” are the Obama administration, which, as the reporters say, “issued specific — and alarming — predictions” about what would happen when the across-the-board cuts began.

The article cites a half dozen, then says, “But none of these happened.” The casual reader would surely infer that the administration blew the whole sequester thing out of proportion.

In fact, it’s hard to read the piece as saying anything other than the sequester isn’t all that bad, though it does casually acknowledge “real hardship to many people.”

It rightly points out that Congress averted some of the predicted harms. In a couple of cases, it provided some additional funds. In others, it let agencies move money around, rather than cut every program and activity equally, as the law initially required.

But none of this means we should breathe a sigh of relief. Even the Post‘s research shows this, though we have to burrow into the details elliptically offered via a graphics box on the front page.

Here we find that the Post generally began with predictions that federal agencies had made in response to a request from the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

It then apparently contacted the agencies to find out whether 48 of the predictions had come true. No explanation of why it chose these. My best guess is that it picked only potential impacts the agencies had quantified — and only those that might already have come to pass.

Thus, for example, the Post checked the Labor Department’s dire (and accurate) prediction of impending federal unemployment benefits cuts, but not what it said about lost employment and training services or weaker enforcement of worker protections.

And it checked none of the Education Department’s predictions because most of them address the upcoming school year. Dire, but unverifiable. So we’re not even told what they are.

Predictions agencies confirmed were said to have “come true.” And, of course, predicted impacts that Congress and/or the agencies had altogether averted were counted as not coming true.

But the Post also counted predictions in the “did not come true” category merely because a numerical estimated proved too high — at least for now.

The federal judicial system, for example, did — or will — furlough public defenders, but not initially for as many days as it earlier thought it would.

So there will be an impact. And pretty scary, I think, for low-income defendants who are behind bars, possible denied their right to a speedy trial and relying on lawyers who’ll have less time to prepare their cases.

The Post‘s approach also minimizes sequester damages because it takes no account of the impacts of cuts agencies made to avert — or partly avert — the impacts they’d predicted.

I note, for example, that the Social Security Administration has reduced the hours its field offices are open. Hard to believe this hasn’t affected frail seniors and people with disabilities, who already had long waits for help with benefits — and subsequent red-tape tangles.

The Defense Department will preserve health services for eligible beneficiaries who aren’t on active duty by furloughing 650,000 civilian employees.

How many of them and their families can easily get along on less income than they were counting on? What will happen to our economy as they cut back spending?

More importantly, over a quarter of the selected predictions couldn’t yet be verified, including those for major programs that serve low-income people’s needs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, reportedly “declined to provide” new estimates for the number of formerly homeless people who’ve lost their housing or their beds in emergency shelters.

Ditto for the number of households who won’t have federally-subsidized housing vouchers.

The Health and Human Services Department says it doesn’t yet know how many children won’t have access to Head Start services — or how many teachers and aides will lose their jobs.

Nor does it know how many seniors will get fewer — or perhaps no — meals home-delivered or served in a group setting, e.g., at a church or community center.

Yet we already have considerable, if fragmentary evidence that the sequester is, in fact, shrinking access to these and other critical services.

The Coalition on Human Needs has been publishing weekly collections of news reports on sequester impacts since early March.

I don’t recall a week without several on Head Start programs that will be serving fewer children — and few weeks without an item on cutbacks in Meals on Wheels and related food-service programs.

The Center for American Progress has also been publishing a weekly series on sequester impacts. Again, we see contractions in Head Start programs, as well as other heterogeneous impacts.

Economist/blogger Jared Bernstein posts still another weekly set of sequester impact news clips.

Some of the reported impacts are prospective because local agencies and nonprofits are still figuring out how they will handle the funding losses. But some aren’t.

Federal agencies can’t yet compile totals to verify all their earlier predictions. Nor can advocates pull together reliable, nationwide numbers. But that doesn’t mean the sequester really isn’t all that bad.

This is especially true because the cuts aren’t a one-time thing. Congress is supposed to cut next year’s appropriations for non-defense programs by $37 billion — this on top of the cuts already in effect.

And, as Bernstein points out, agencies won’t have the same opportunities to blunt the effects, e.g., by counting leftover funds they couldn’t spend.

What the Post had done is okay so far as it goes. But its framing of the results strongly suggests that we can discount what the administration will say when it “seek[s] to make the threat reappear” in an effort to mitigate the next round of cuts.

Need I say that would be a big mistake — even if it turns out that fewer than 70,000 low-income children have thus far been denied access to Head Start and Early Start?

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One Response to Sequester Scarier Than Washington Post Claims

  1. […] We may not yet have hard data for everyone affected by the across-the-board cuts to many non-defense programs — hence the overly-upbeat Washington Post article I recently took apart. […]

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