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Faces Behind the Numbers: The Human Cost of Sequester Cuts

The squeaky wheel gets oiled. Despite my parents’ insistence that patience (and appropriate volume) is a virtue, I learned early on that the person who pipes up and makes a scene gets an audience. Capitol Hill seems to have learned the same lesson.

During the ongoing budget debates, the voices we’ve heard are loud ones – powerful politicians, special interest groups, and newsmakers – who often get what they want when they want it. (You may remember that Congress speedily undid cuts to air traffic controllers when they were in a rush to fly home to their districts last spring.) The quieter voices – those with less influence and, too often, more on the line in this tough economy – have been drowned out. A new report from NDD United aims to change all that.

NDD Across America Map

The group, a coalition of organizations including NWLC, is dedicated to ending sequestration and protecting nondefense discretionary (NDD) programs. These programs must be funded each year through the annual budget process. Discretionary programs are divided into two groups: defense and nondefense. NDD programs really are the “everything else” category of spending, and they critically affect Americans’ daily lives. NDD programs cover food safety, clean water, public transit, education, health, security… The list goes on and on.

These programs are crucial for all of us, but they’re particularly important to families struggling to make ends meet. Women and children are disproportionately poor, and they rely on many shrinking NDD programs like housing assistance and Head Start. Even before the sequester, Congress subjected NDD programs to two rounds of cuts – first, through the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations process, then through the Budget Control Act. If sequestration is allowed to continue in 2014, funding for NDD programs will be 18 percent lower in real terms than in 2010.

Sequestration is bad for the economy, and it hurts Americans around the country on a personal level. NDD United is making sure these stories are heard.

At a congressional briefing this week, I listened to a number of people featured in the report. I can tell you this: their stories are both heartbreaking and frustrating. Head Start programs have been forced to turn down eligible kids and their families. Adult education and training groups have accepted fewer students and taught less advanced skills, even when employers have asked them to help fill positions. The National Institutes of Health have slashed grants to researchers working to improve medical treatments. The National Park Service has laid off employees and racked up bills for park maintenance that should have been routine. The effects of sequestration ripple outwards – hurting local businesses, putting more pressure on community groups to support those in need, and setting us up for future problems. When kids don’t get the school preparation they need and programs push off upkeep until it’s an emergency, those issues will only snowball down the line.

The squeaky wheel often gets a bad rap – and for good reason. I get tired of hearing the same political spin when I listen to reports on the sequester. But when the speaker is a Head Start administrator whose teachers are overworked and whose waiting lists are growing? I think we should be all ears.

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