Starting today, October 1, we all are living on the edge of the human cliff.
Most people seem unaware of the urgent danger, in part because political spin masters disguise it with detached terms such as "fiscal cliff" and "sequestration." That language seems designed to mask the truth and divert attention away from the agony that individuals, families, and communities will feel after being pushed over the edge as their jobs and various services on which they rely disappear beneath them... because Washington politicians didn't do their jobs.
When Congress passed the Budget Control Act last year, it launched a "sequestration" process mandating massive, across-the-board spending cuts if it failed to reduce the deficit by the end of 2012. Congress has failed to act, so the hatchet will automatically chop $54.6 billion from domestic programs and an equal amount of defense spending on January 2, 2013. Yet the required cuts are based on the full federal fiscal year -- that officially begins today.
What do these cuts mean to you and me?
In its recent 394-page report listing the projected dollar amounts that will be axed from specific budget accounts, the Office of Management and Budget translates the usual federal fiscal-speak to clarify how the sequestration cuts will harm everyone:
- Hurting education by carving away funding for "smaller classes, afterschool programs, and children with disabilities"
- Handcuffing law enforcement by reducing the number of FBI "agents, Customs and Border Patrol agents, correctional officers, and federal prosecutors"
- Threatening public safety by curtailing "efforts to inspect food processing plants and prevent foodborne illnesses," limiting the "ability to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe," and restricting the FAA's "ability to oversee and manage the Nation's airspace and air traffic control"
- Halting "scientific research, including needed research into cancer and childhood diseases"
- Undermining FEMA's "ability to respond to... catastrophic events."
The cuts will hit all levels of government. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that states and the people they serve will lose, among other amounts: approximately $600 million for Head Start, $140 million in financial aid for college students, $2 billion for rental assistance programs, nearly $600 million for disaster relief, and block grant program funding for health, human services, and community development. At the local level, more than 130 Mayors warn on a bipartisan basis that sequestration will force "cuts to a number of critical local services and dramatic job losses for teachers, first responders, and health care workers."
Want more insights? Consider AARP's sampling of cuts to "programs that affect older people, including home-based nutrition, Meals on Wheels, transit and housing." The nonpartisan Pew Center on the States explains how sequestration cuts ordered by Congress will -- among other things -- slash basic education (cut $1.3 billion), special education (cut $1 billion), child care and development (cut $187 million), and food for women, infants, and children (WIC program -- cut $543 million).
We should all pause and think about that last program for a moment. How will those cuts be implemented? When the cuts get made on January 2, three months of the fiscal year -- that starts today -- will have passed already, so the cuts for the remaining nine months will have to go even deeper to cover the full-dollar figure to be slashed for the year. To operate within WIC's shrunken budget, will the government stop feeding infants and children several days each month, or shut down for an entire month at the end of the fiscal year? Will Congress declare the approach to be taken, or pass decisions to other policymakers, program managers, and contractors to make these potentially life and death decisions?
Speaking of passing things off, America's charitable nonprofits keep seeing governments at all levels cutting funding for programs and expecting nonprofits to fill the void. Economists call this "off-loading." Nonprofits that keep being asked to do so much more for so many more for so much longer with so much less call it something else: unsustainable. And if Congress fails to return to D.C. to stop sequestration by January 2, all Americans will have another word for it: unconscionable.
What can we do?
First, bring the impending human tragedies of this story to life this week by writing a letter to the editor of your local paper. Translate for journalists and the general public how slashing specific domestic programs you know about will affect you, your family, your neighbors, and others in your local community.
Next, look at the people running for office. Avoid getting caught up in the hullabaloo directed at the presidential election. Focus instead on who is running for Congress and state legislature in your district. Ask: who will work seriously to solve problems rather than be another partisan obstructionist or apologist on either side of the aisle? Apply the same standard for statewide races and local elections.
Then, stand up, speak out, and demand straight answers. People running for office need our votes and they fear the wrath of voters. They will listen to us now more than at any other time; use the campaign season to focus candidates' attention on the real-life issues that truly matter to you. And tell candidates for public office that you will no longer accept the contentious acrimony and hyper-partisanship that have driven us to the edge of the cliff at all levels of government.
Finally, we must listen to what they tell us in response. Then hold them accountable with our votes.