Editorial: Now the sequester is starting to hurt
Congress has been holding its breath during the long tantrum called the sequester, but it’s the American public, and most of all its poor, who are turning blue as the impact of the across-the-board budget cuts hit one sector after another. Virtually everyone involved, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, agree that the sequester is stupid – our word, not theirs. But neither side has been able to move from its respective position – no tax increases for Republicans, no budget cuts without more revenue raised by closing tax loopholes for Democrats.
New Hampshire is one of 16 states whose Senate delegation is split between Republicans and Democrats; two states, Maine and Vermont, have an independent senator. Aside from their political differences, Shaheen and Ayotte get along. We urge them to work together to help their respective parties find compromise, for the pain of the sequester has become real.
The rules Congress decreed for the sequester do not allow agencies to deviate, save by hard-won special exemption, from across-the-board cuts of just under 7.9 percent for defense spending and 5.3 percent for domestic programs. As a result, senseless, often counterproductive, cuts are being made. If the point of the sequester is, as Republicans insist, to put the nation on track to balance its budget, what is the point of requiring that the Internal Revenue Service close down for five days? They’re the folks who collect the money.
Airline delays caused by the furlough of air traffic controllers are getting most of the attention at the moment. They are slowing the economy and thus reducing tax collection, further increasing the deficit. They are also an inconvenience for millions of people who, since they can afford air travel or are traveling on business, have a voice loud enough for Congress to hear.
Not so for the poor.
At the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, the largest of the state agencies that dispense vouchers to help low-income residents afford housing, the current nine-year wait for help is in danger of becoming 10. The agency has stopped issuing new rent vouchers and unless the sequester is lifted, the authority will be unable to provide 170 families with rental assistance.
That figure doesn’t include families that won’t be helped by local housing authorities. A coalition of organizations that advocate on behalf of the poor say 500 families could be affected. The housing assistance cuts will come in a state that saw family homelessness increase by 20 percent and the childhood poverty rate double in a decade.
The sequester will mean cuts to Meals on Wheels program for seniors, fewer children enrolled in Head Start, less of the child-care assistance that makes it possible for single mothers to work, a 16.7 percent cut in emergency unemployment assistance, less nutrition assistance for pregnant, low-income women, less money for homeless shelters, less money for programs to reduce pollution, and countless other reductions of social spending.
Addressing the nation’s deficit in a long-term way may be beyond the ability of a U.S. House of Representatives that has been so gerrymandered that the only threat to many Republicans comes from a right that sees compromise as defeat. But that shouldn’t stop Shaheen and Ayotte from seeking, at minimum, a suspension of the sequester while Congress continues to pursue a budget compromise that doesn’t hurt those who need government the most.