So What Is "Sequestration"? And More Importantly, What Do These Spending Cuts Mean for Hard-Working and Low-Income Families?

August 14, 2012

By Alan W. Houseman

This page has been updated to reflect the two-month postponement of sequstration as part of the "fiscal cliff" deal on January 1, 2013.

Here's a multiple choice question: what is sequestration?

A)    What the doctor tells you to do when you have the flu
B)    A new dance craze spreading on YouTube
C)    The latest Mars explorer
D)    Budgetary rules that could result in deep, automatic and indiscriminate spending cuts starting in January

If you answered "D," you're right. Recently, the Washington Post released a short video explaining what "sequester" means that is well worth viewing.

Sequestration was created in August 2011 as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which ended the showdown over raising the federal debt ceiling. Because Congress failed to come up with a deficit reduction plan, the Budget Control Act calls for $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the next decade, including nearly $500 billion in cuts to defense programs and $500 billion in cuts to "non-defense discretionary" programs-the term used to refer to spending on a wide range of domestic programs including education, health, human services, and labor.

Policymakers crafted the Act with the expectation that these indiscriminate cuts would be so devastating that lawmakers would be forced to come to the table before they would take effect and hammer out another, longer-term deal to responsibly get the government's fiscal house in order.

Congress has not come to such a deal.  However, as part of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, the "fiscal cliff" deal, Congress agreed to postpone the start of sequesteration for two months.  Therefore, these very real, very harmful cuts are now  set to start March 1, 2013. 

Who Will Feel These Cuts?

Unless Congress acts to create a balanced package that includes budget savings and increased revenues, these cuts will hit families hard.  Senator Harkin estimates that as a result of these cuts:

  • 1.6 million fewer adults, dislocated workers and at-risk youth will have access to job training or education and employment services;
  • 80,000 fewer children will receive child care subsidies, making it harder for their parents to go to work;
  • 96,000+ fewer children will be served in Head Start; and
  • 1.8 million fewer disadvantaged students will receive education services through Title I.

These are just some of the consequences if Congress doesn't act. For additional, state-specific information on how these cuts will impact children and families' access to programs, read Senator Harkin's report Under Threat.

What Does Congress Propose to Do?

As bad as these indiscriminate program cuts would be, some of the proposals being considered by Congress would make things much worse by exempting all military cuts and making non-defense programs bear the full brunt of sequestration. This would require even worse cuts in social programs such as Head Start, job training, community health centers, and meals for low-income seniors (among many others) - cuts that are twice as deep as under current law. 

Under current law, certain programs helping the neediest families (such as Medicaid and Food Stamps) were exempted from sequestration. But any attempt to exempt defense spending or reduce the long-term deficit without including revenue increases will ultimately result in severe cuts to programs serving low- and moderate- income workers and families.

What Are Advocates Doing?

With so many millions of workers, families and children struggling, we can't let these indiscriminate cuts happen.  CLASP has joined a coalition of more than 3,000 organizations across the country in fighting cuts to non-defense discretionary programs.  We invite you to learn more and get involved in this coalition and opportunities to fight for hard-working, low-income families who cannot afford these irresponsible and harmful program cuts.

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