What’s ‘Sequestration’ Mean in Real Life?

An explanation of the trillion-dollar budget cuts that are set to begin in a matter of days.

By Imara Jones Feb 20, 2013

With politicians and pundits throwing around words like "sequestration" and debating the arcana of federal budgeting, it can be tough to grasp what’s at stake for real people and their communities. It doesn’t help when some in the debate are deliberately confusing the matter. But let’s be clear: The $1.1 trillion in automatic spending cuts that are set to begin next week constitute a nuclear bomb that’s poised to go off in communities of color.  Through a one-two punch of job losses and slashed government spending, "sequestration"–as it’s formally known–will wreak havoc at precisely the moment that America’s hardest hit communities can least afford them. Up to 2.1 million jobs–more than were created in all of 2012–could be lost, according to the Congressional Research Service.  But the damage will stretch far beyond jobs. The cuts will force a dramatic pullback in critical areas like health, education, housing and food security, all of which will transform the economy’s unhealed suffering into a state of pain difficult to fully comprehend. Quite frankly, it’s hard to see how many areas of the country will pull through. The process is set to unfold over time in slow motion. When the cuts start on March 1, we may not notice. But by late spring, we may look around and wonder what the Congress has wrought. So what, exactly, will get cut? Here’s a sampling of what’s in store, taken directly from information provided to Congress by the effected federal agencies. More People Sick
Cuts in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) budget will translate to 424,000 fewer HIV tests and 540,000 fewer vaccines for killer diseases like the flu, measles and hepatitis. Additionally, thousands will not be able to receive the drugs they require to keep HIV/AIDS at bay due to cuts in the AIDS Drugs Assistance Program, which helps those who are uninsured pay for the expensive treatments that have kept AIDS deaths down for the past 15 years. Moreover, reductions in grants to community health centers mean that 900,000 fewer adults will receive critical care. Spending rollbacks on mental health and drug treatment will mean that over a half million people will not receive services. And Native Americans will get one million fewer visits to the Indian Health Service. Fewer Homes
125,000 people will lose Section 8 vouchers, which are crucial tools to meeting the housing needs of the working poor. With nowhere else to go, 100,000 homeless people will lose access to temporary housing.  Additionally, maintenance will be deferred at over a million public housing units nationwide and thousands more people with AIDS will be denied access to housing help. Fewer Kids in School
70,000 children will lose access to the pre-school program Head Start, with another 30,000 blocked from child care assistance. If sequestration lasts through the fall, grants targeted to improve the education of over 20 million of the nation’s poorest students and 6.5 million children with special needs will be cut. Nearly 3,000 individual schools will be directly impacted. More Hunger, Less Safety
600,000 fewer women and their children will receive food aid through reductions in the Women, Infants and Children program. While cuts in food inspectors will mean meat and poultry plants will close, resulting in $400 million in lost wages for workers and higher prices in grocery stores. 2,100 health inspections at food and pharmaceutical plants in the U.S. and around the world won’t happen. More Crisis for the Jobless
Nearly 4 million of the nation’s long-term unemployed will see their unemployment insurance payments reduced by 10 percent. This is more bad news for the economy overall.  According to the Labor Department, "every dollar in unemployment benefits generates $2 in economic activity." Moreover, 150,000 veterans won’t receive the help they need to make the transition from military to civilian life. This list could continue. The furlough of thousands of air traffic controllers will delay air travel and strain an already overburdened system. Thousands of environmental quality inspections and clean up at hundreds of polluted sites will be halted. And on it goes. After two hard-fought presidential elections in which the rhetoric of economic justice helped to secure landslide victories, it’s safe to say this is not the place where voters thought they’d be in February 2013. "Sequestration" is only the first of three budgetary crises that could help overturn the economic advancements that historically marginalized communities have made over the past 50 years. But we are where we are, and our ability to figure out a way forward depends on our ability to quickly absorb what’s a stake. The first tranche of cuts, $120 billion, starts in a matter of days. The fact that budget reductions that so adversely impact communities of color are occurring at exactly the time that people of color have more political power than ever is an irony too big to be ignored. It’s easy to be confused. One looks at the budget arguments made by Mitt Romney during the election, followed by President Obama’s victory, and it’s hard to see exactly which side came out on top. The good news is that the crisis of sequestration is not a natural one, but manufactured by our elected representatives. That means by exercising the full range of our political rights, citizens can ultimately decide whether and how long this madness lasts. ** This piece has been updated since publication.*