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.

Drink Your Milk NOW … Eggnog Too

December 27, 2012

Well, the U.S. House of Representatives certainly treated us to an egregious display of dysfunction, didn’t it?

One of the less reported aspects was its failure to pass a Farm Bill, i.e., a piece of legislation to renew, with revisions, a host of food and agriculture programs.

So what we have now is the last permanent version of the Farm Act, signed into law in 1949.

Anti-hunger advocates aren’t worried about this — yet. SNAP (the food stamp program) won’t expire because Congress put a temporary extension into the continuing resolution that will keep federal programs funded until March.

Advocates are worried because both the draft House Farm bill and the Farm Bill the Senate passed would cut benefits for about half a million households.

Perhaps I should say remaining households, since the House version would toss at least 1.8 million — maybe as many as 3 million — people out of the program.

Many farmers are unhappy because the various programs that protect them from losses depend on the Farm Act, as do other programs that benefit them, e.g., funding for their efforts to conserve natural resources.

Still, most of these were also extended until March — about the time crop farmers start planting.

But what about dairy farmers? They, of course, produce and sell milk year round.

One of the programs that supports milk prices has altogether expired because it was created after 1949 and not extended in the CR. The other program — the Dairy Price Support Program — has reverted to its 1949 form.

Under this program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases milk — or more recently, certain products made with milk — when prices fall below specified levels. The latest Farm Act set these as fixed dollar values.

But back in 1949 and for some time thereafter, the target level was set as a ratio between milk prices and farm costs, including family living costs.

Failure to pass a new Farm Bill means that the Agriculture Department will have to use the 1949 formula, with adjustments for inflation and some other technical factors.

It will thus have to buy milk to support a price that’s roughly double the current market price.

So it’s reasonable to expect that dairy farmers will initially choose to sell to the government rather than to commercial sources. The old law of supply and demand will kick in, driving up retail milk and milk product costs.

The New York Times estimates costs as high as $6.00 — or even $8.00 — per gallon of milk. At the high end, this is nearly twice the average daily SNAP benefit.

But SNAP benefits will be lower before the new year ends — even if Congress decides not to make further cuts. Which, at this point, seems unlikely.

And WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) will be cut by 8.2% if Congress doesn’t put the brakes on sequestration, i.e., the impending across-the-board cuts to programs that depend on annual appropriations.

More than 900,000 mothers and young children will be dropped from the rolls, according to Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.

This figure, their letter indicates, was based in part on food prices projected last fall — presumably prices for foods that participating mothers can buy with WIC coupons.

Milk and cheese account for about a third of WIC food spending. Double the costs of these and we should expect to see many more low-income families denied the specially-tailored nutrition assistance and other services that help give children a healthy start in life.

Similar results, of course, if Congress replaces sequestration with a bill that shifts all the mandated savings to non-defense programs that are already subject to sequestration and/or to safety net programs the current law protects.

The latest House-passed bill does both. The SNAP cuts are even worse than what we’d seen before. And the radically-low cap on non-defense appropriations puts WIC at risk of a bigger cut than sequestration itself.

These — or some compromised version — seem to me a greater danger than a long-term lapse back to the 1949 Farm Act.

On the other hand, it’s hard to predict what this Congress will do — or more precisely, fail to do.

So we can only hope that members heeded the President’s advice and drank their eggnog because the price could skyrocket.

Suggest we all do the same to get our minds off these troubles for a bit.