Sequester Hits Long-Term Jobless Workers Hard

July 11, 2013

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.

But we do now have a report on losses that long-term unemployed workers and their families are suffering.

It confirms — and then some — the Labor Department’s update for the Post, which said that unemployment insurance benefits cuts were, in some states, as high as 11%, rather than the 9.4% it predicted earlier.

The affected workers are those who’ve been unemployed longer than their regular state UI programs cover — generally 26 weeks.

Federally-funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits have given them some ongoing cash income for awhile.

The sequester cut funding for the already-shrunken EUC program by a total of $2.4 billion. States and the District of Columbia were left to figure out how to deal with their share of the cut.

The National Employment Law Project’s tabular report tells us what each has done and the effect on EUC benefits, both average and maximum. Also the approximate number of jobless workers affected.

Thirteen states and the District acted swiftly. So the pain came sooner, but was less severe. Here in the District, for example, benefits were cut, as of the end of March, by 10.7%.

This has left somewhere around 8,600 workers with benefits averaging $1,024 a month — about $7,240 less than the federal poverty line for a family of three. (Shows that the benefits weren’t all that comfortable a hammock, even before the cuts, of course.)

Some states took the same across-the-board approach, but started their cuts later. The percent cuts thus had to be larger.

In Maryland, which began its cuts at the end of June, workers lost 22% — an average of $72 a week. Virginia workers lost 14.2% — an average of $40 a week — because the state began its cuts somewhat earlier.

Seven states realized all the required savings by limit the cuts to new EUC beneficiaries — or to them and those moving to the next tier, i.e., the additional weeks of benefits they could get because they were still unemployed.

A couple of states decided to pay no benefits for one week in each of three months. Two other states reduced the number of weeks benefits would be paid to workers who’d been unemployed the longest (and still eligible for EUC).

And North Carolina, which cut both the weeks and maximum benefits in its own UI program, effectively wiped out EUC benefits because the federal law denies funding to states that cut the benefits they themselves provide.

Rounding out the list are two states — Louisiana and Nevada — that still haven’t put their EUC savings plans in place. Their cuts will, of course, have to be enormous. And Louisiana will be starting from benefits averaging a mere $201 a week.

Echoing the Labor Department, NELP says that as many as 3.8 million workers and their families will be affected this year.

Those already in the EUC program were receiving, on average, $1,156 a month. They’ll be trying to somehow get along on $172 less. “That alone,” NELP notes, “can be the difference between making — or not making — a rent, car or mortgage payment.”

Meanwhile, the job market is still “in a slog,” as the Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz reports. Another round of spending cuts will hardly improve it.

Yet we see no sense of urgency to do anything for the jobless workers whose UI benefits won’t keep them and their families afloat — or those who will come to the end of their last tier and have nothing at all.


Sequester Scarier Than Washington Post Claims

July 8, 2013

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?


More Fixes Won’t Fix Sequestration’s Harms

May 2, 2013

Never let it be said that Congress can’t get anything done because bipartisanship is dead. Look at how swiftly Republicans and Democrats jointly acted when the air traffic controller furloughs started inconveniencing frequent flyers.

This isn’t the first time Congress has created a loophole in the law that mandates across-the-board cuts.

When the Agriculture Department announced that it would have to furlough the inspectors who must be in meat, poultry and egg processing plants, Congress found funding to keep the inspectors on the job.

Took part of it out of the department’s fund for grants to help more schools serve breakfast to low-income students.

I’m hardly the first to note that Congress has evinced no significant concern about other delays sequestration seems likely to cause — or those that will worsen.

Nor about other harms the cuts will cause — not merely furloughs that will create hardships for some as-yet unknown number of federal employees, but as many as 750,000 actual job losses in both the public and private sectors.

And lost benefits for jobless workers who’ve been unemployed long enough to qualify for federally-funded unemployment insurance benefits. Nineteen states have already rolled out cuts averaging $120 a week. The longer states wait, the bigger the cuts will have to be.

Some of the other cuts have also gotten considerable press coverage.

So you probably know that Head Start programs have begun paring back enrollment. Some of them already have waiting lists — a far more consequential sort of delay than some extra hours in an airport.

The U.S. Secretary of Education says that about 70,000 children won’t have the early learning opportunities and other benefitse.g., health services, that Head Start provides.

One Head Start director warns that parents may have to quit their jobs to tend to their children — not unlikely, since unsubsidized child care can cost more than they earn.

And sequestration has taken a bite out of the block grant that helps pay for subsidized care.

Also out of federal programs that fund subsidized housing. Long waiting lists for housing assistance are already common. And the number of years applicants wait are often far longer than the number of hours fussed airline travelers waited.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 140,000 fewer households will have housing vouchers by early next year. Others, it says, may face rent increases — perhaps beyond their ability to pay.

Yet funds for homeless services will be cut too.

But I’m cherry-picking here, just as many say Congress just did. Those interested can find many other examples in the weekly reports the Coalition on Human Needs is publishing.

No one, I think, would doubt that Congress hasn’t acted to avert impacts like the aforementioned because the people affected don’t have the political clout that frequent fliers and agribusinesses do.

I think we’re looking at something more difficult to deal with than a power imbalance, however.

The air traffic controller and food safety inspector furloughs caused — or were about to cause — large, clear, nationwide impacts. In many other cases, the proverbial is only beginning to hit the fan — or more precisely, a vast number of fans.

Most of the genuine news we have about the impacts on low-income people and the programs that serve them are local — and often likelihoods rather than sure things.

This is partly because program directors, in many cases, don’t yet know what their share of the cut will be. Even those who do are mostly still figuring out how they’ll manage — and give various answers when asked.

We also don’t get a whole picture because stories tend to get written when some advocates have gotten reporters interested. And, face it, some programs have more heart-tug appeal than others.

In one respect, it’s good that we’re getting stories. In fact, this is a welcome — if unintended — side effect of the air traffic controller save.

Yet, in another respect, it’s dangerous. Because the more major media focus on a handful of programs — and the more grassroots campaigns call on Congress to save one or another — the more likely other FAA-type fixes become.

And most federal agencies, unlike FAA, don’t have a pot of money they can tap that they didn’t need to spend this year anyway.

So a reprieve for some programs will mean deeper cuts for others. Like as not they’ll be programs that benefit low-income people — especially those that don’t have an effective public voice or lend themselves so well to poignant individual stories.

House Republicans seem open to this. “The main thing,” says Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK), “is to secure $85 billion in savings. We are not wedded to where the savings come from.”

But the fundamental issue is the savings, a.k.a spending cuts. Sequestration is a singularly dumb way to address a problem that’s been blown out of all proportion, i.e., the federal deficit.

Yet, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has testified, deep cuts at this point — even if not across-the-board — are likely to lead to less deficit reduction.

And the whole approach is unbalanced, since sequestration comes on top of $1.5 trillion in cuts and a mere $620 billion or so in additional revenues.

Congress ought to get rid of sequestration, which none of its members wanted — or thought would come to pass. And some, who will remain nameless, should back off their cuts-only/cuts-now solution to the long-term deficit.

That, I hope, will be the message that all who care about the well-being of our nation’s children, seniors and everyone in between will deliver. Because if we don’t hang together … Well, you know the rest.


Blame Game Not the Real Sequestration Story

February 18, 2013

The manager of a LinkedIn group I belong to asked whether Congress should delay the sequester the President “had demanded as part of the Budget Control Act.”

This set off a long string of responses — and long answers from the manager. As you might guess from the original question, the debate centered largely on whom to blame and why.

I mention this back-and-forth because it resembles much of the news coverage of the impending across-the-board cuts — and the op-eds as well.

We get blow-by-blow reports on who said what, who’s got the upper hand and how we got into this mess to begin with.

We get justifications of the President’s call for a balanced alternative. We get rehashes of the Republicans’ talking points. See, for example, this classic by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Now this isn’t the whole of the media stream, of course. We’ve also had coverage of how sequestration will affect the economy as a whole — often, though not always combined with its impacts on the labor market.

Also some fearsome warnings about how the defense cuts will cripple our national security.

Defense contractors have been very busy folks. So much so that the economy-jobs coverage often focuses on the jobs they’ll cut — and, thanks to the Pentagon, on civilian layoffs in the Defense Department as well.

We haven’t been hearing nearly as much about the impacts of the across-the-board cuts to the many and varied programs inelegantly lumped into the “non-defense discretionary” category.

Even more importantly, we haven’t been hearing much about the people these cuts will harm — unless you count the gross job loss figures.

In point of fact, the cuts will potentially harm us all.

The Food and Drug Administration won’t conduct as many food safety inspections. And it’s already not conducting nearly as many as it should.

Our communities may have fewer firefighters and the emergency personnel we perforce count on during and after natural disasters.

Our public schools will lose teachers — either that or our state and local governments will have to pick up the costs of keeping them. That would undoubtedly mean either higher taxes or, more likely, cutbacks in other programs and services we value.

A bare handful of examples.

Those who want to get a fuller picture can read a letter to colleagues by Congressman Norman Dicks or a report, both more and less comprehensive, by Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education.

The figures in both of these documents are outdated because they were issued before Congress decided to postpone sequestration until the beginning of next month.

But each, in its own way, helps us understand that the real story of sequestration isn’t — or shouldn’t be — about who’s to blame for the fact we’re facing it or who will get the blame if it happens.

It’s about the people across this country who will be adversely affected — and above all, the people who can least afford more adversity.

I’m talking, of course, about low-income people who rely on safety net programs and other publicly-funded programs that offer them and their children a chance to gain a toehold in the middle class.

I’ve been struggling to tell this story for well over two weeks and haven’t been able to corral the many, many figures — the dollar losses and the losers — into a reasonably tidy post that makes them meaningful.

As fallback, here’s another bare handful of examples — these pulled from a recently-issued White House fact sheet.

  • Approximately 600,000 mothers and young children will lose the specially-tailored nutrition assistance, education and health care referrals they get from WIC.
  • Approximately 70,000 children will be dropped from Head Start and Early Start programs, losing the diverse services that help them enter kindergarten as healthy and ready to learn as their better-off peers.
  • Nearly 1.2 million school-age children will lose access to programs and services designed to help them overcome learning disadvantages associated with poverty, limited English proficiency and other factors.
  • Long-term jobless workers and their families will face unemployment benefits cuts as high as 9.4%.

These aren’t the only imminent threats to the well-being and future prospects of low-income children.

For example, some large, though unknown number of children may become homeless, since the White House says that 125,000 families are likely to lose their federally-funded housing vouchers — an even larger number than the estimate I recently cited.

At the same time, they’ll be less likely to receive short-shot assistance that could help them move to cheaper housing — and even less likely than now to gain access to shelter or housing subsidized by homeless assistance grants.

I suppose journalists will find stories in the across-the-board cuts once families start losing their housing subsidies, frail seniors their home-delivered meals, veterans their shelter access, etc.

Perhaps enough of these stories will make the impending cuts a brief, unhappy episode in our history.

Perhaps next year’s budget will, to borrow from the President, give low-income people a fair shot at a better future — and a fair enough share of our country’s great wealth to meet their basic needs.

Perhaps, but as doubtful, I fear, as the Republicans agreeing to tax increases now — or Democrats to an alternative that’s non-defense spending cuts alone.