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‘Death by a Thousand Cuts': Budget cuts from federal sequester taking toll on local social programs

"I think it's a disgrace that Congress ever created this sequestration process."

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In tough economic times, organizations like the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank usually see an increase in the number of people who need their services. But thanks to budget cuts brought on by the federal government's sequester, money to fund those services is getting harder to come by.

"The changes that we see due to the sequester may appear to be minor, but they are what one staff member called ‘death by a thousand cuts,'" says Lisa Scales, CEO of the food bank. "Small ones here, loss of administrative money there, but it all adds up. 

"Added to other cuts over the past few years, we see a significant impact at a time when there is an increasing need." 

The federal sequester is a set of automatic budget cuts that went into effect on March 1. Signed into law as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, as part of the deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling, the cuts were divided equally among defense and domestic spending. Pundits at the time predicted the cuts were too severe to ever be allowed to go into effect; it was a bill meant to force compromise. The compromise never came, and now safety-net programs face reduced funding. 

Overall, the sequester calls for a total of $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over nine years, with cuts for 2013 totaling $85 billion.

Sequester cuts to domestic spending will affect unemployment benefits; the Department of Health and Human Services' Child Care and Development Fund; federally-funded mental-health care; senior meal programs; special education; food-assistance programs; and Head Start, among other programs.

"The full breadth of sequestration's devastation will become readily visible as the cuts take hold over the weeks, months and years ahead: opportunities in medical research lost; public defenders furloughed; national parks closed; lab capacity to track outbreaks diminished; teachers fired," says Emily Holubowich, spokesperson for NDD United, a group of 3,200 organizations working to stop sequestration. (NDD stand for nondefense discretionary programs.) "Sequestration is projected to cost as many as 750,000 jobs, and deny 31 million children access to education programs like Head Start."

U.S. Rep Mike Doyle (D-Pittsburgh) says that the sequestration ever took effect in the first place is a "disgrace." 

"For that matter, I think it's a disgrace that Congress ever created this sequestration process. I'm proud to say I voted against it," Doyle wrote in an email to City Paper. 

"I've been in touch with many local social-service providers and have heard first-hand about the impact these cuts are having. Programs like Head Start and other social-service programs provide essential assistance to some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

"We're the richest nation on Earth. We can easily afford to help the least fortunate among us. It's all a matter of priorities, and I oppose the priorities of those who would rather cut aid to the poor rather than raise taxes on the rich."

Greg Quinlan, executive director of Focus On Renewal in McKees Rocks, says Head Start has been cut by 5.27 percent overall, and his organization is trying to absorb that cut as painlessly as possible for the community. 

Focus On Renewal (FOR) is one of six providers of the Early Head Start program through the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.

A box in the Community Supplemental Food Program - PHOTO BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL
  • Photo by Renee Rosensteel
  • A box in the Community Supplemental Food Program

Head Start is funded by block grants through different providers. Each provider's fiscal calendar may be different. The cuts will affect FOR beginning in September.

"We are working on the budget right now," Quinlan says. "The Pitt office is trying to do it in a way that protects as many children and families as they can and in a way that does not force us to lay off too many employees."

Quinlan says the program is trying to make the staffing cuts through attrition, but he is unsure how that will affect his site or the other sites throughout the county.

FOR has five home visitors, a nurse and a supervisor serving 55 participants in the program. Early Head Start targets expectant mothers and children up to age 3. Head Start is for children ages 3-5.

"It is a comprehensive anti-poverty program that addresses the needs of the whole family," Quinlan says. 

Like the Food Bank, FOR also has seen many funding cuts over the past several years.

"The sequester is just another in a long line of challenges due to the larger economic environment," Quinlan says. "Since 2008, when the Great Recession hit, we have been consolidating and consolidating to see what we can no longer afford and to see how we can do things smarter and better with less resources. In 2010, we were twice the size we are now."

Quinlan says that that reduction in size, and in services offered, happened because grant money for programs like mental-health services ran out.

At the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Scales says the sequester is cutting programs such as the Community Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides monthly boxes of food to senior citizens. 

Scales says the food bank provides 6,600 seniors in an 11-county region with food through this program. There will be a cut of 414 participants in the program statewide.

"That may appear to be a small number, but then my question is, what happens to the people who do lose their monthly box of food? Will they need to apply for SNAP [commonly referred to as food stamps]? Or will they be forced to go without food and then because of poor nutrition be hospitalized?" Scales asks. "We will still end up paying for it, but on the other end." 

Although the full effect of the sequester on her organization will not be clear for a few months, Scales says the hits seem to be coming on a steady basis. For example, the food bank receives federally funded volunteers through the AmeriCorps program. The individuals work at the food bank for 11 months, but Scales recently received word that they will be receiving fewer than usual.

 "The volunteers were going to be placed in each one of the counties in our coverage areas. Now, each will most likely have to cover a county-and-a-half," Scales says. "This could lead them to be less effective as they try to cover more territory with less staff."

Despite the reduction in funding, the food bank's usage by the public has increased by 57 percent during the economic downturn of the past few years. These new cuts come at a time when eligibility for unemployment benefits, medical assistance and SNAP benefits has risen. Cuts to those programs will lead to more people seeking food at food pantries. 

Scales says the driving forces of hunger are unemployment and poverty. Both, she says, have risen. In the 11-county region that the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank covers, 3,200 new households each month are seeking help from food pantries. And while it's common when discussing budget cuts to think about numbers, Scales says it's important for legislators to keep one thing in mind as the sequester drags on. 

"Each one of those numbers represents a person, a senior citizen or a person who is hungry," Scales says. "These people are in need." 

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