Squeezed by Sequester: Programs for Women & Children Particularly Hard Hit by Federal Budget Cuts

Jun 1, 2013

After automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester caused a week of delayed and canceled flights that annoyed travelers nationwide, Congress quickly passed legislation to fix that problem. 

But military spending, public health and public safety funding, money to protect clean air and clean water, long term unemployment benefits and more will still be cut under the plan to reduce federal spending growth by more than $1 trillion over the next decade. If Congress allows the sequester to stand, spending would be reduced by $85 billion this year. While many Americans will likely feel the pinch of the sequester in one way or another, low-income women and children could be hit especially hard. 

A doctor examines a patient at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Chicago’s Loop.
Credit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

  “Maybe because they fly home each weekend, the members of Congress who insisted on these cuts finally realized that they actually apply to them, too,” President Barack Obama said after he signed the measure that allowed the Federal Aviation Administration to shift funds and put laid-off air traffic controllers back on the job. “We can’t just keep putting Band-Aids on every cut. It’s not a responsible way to govern. There’s only one way to truly fix the sequestration, by replacing it before it causes further damage. ... I hope members of Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families still in the crosshairs of these cuts.” 

But rolling back the sequester would require a federal budget deal that reduces the deficit — which would likely include some combination of tax increases and cuts to entitlement programs, such as Social Security, which are largely untouched by sequestration. The sequester is the product of a stalemate over how to cut the federal deficit. It was intended to be an alternative that nobody would want — a gun to the head of Congress to get it to come up with another plan. But as the deadline for the sequester to kick in drew near, no compromise appeared, and many in Congress decided that it might not be so bad. At least it would cut spending, even if it did so with an ax instead of a scalpel. “Whether it’s the sequester or some other set of spending cuts, the reality is that with a $16.6 trillion debt ... we must cut spending,” U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican from Collinsville, said when the across-the-board spending cuts went into effect in March. “While the point of putting sequestration into place was to force a ‘grand bargain’ as some have called it, I do not see a big package to deal with long-term issues coming forth soon.” 

But others say that many of the reductions, such as those to housing assistance and subsidized meals for seniors, will harm the country’s most needy citizens, and cuts such as those to early childhood education and women’s health care save money up front but increase costs in the long term. “I joined most of my House colleagues in voting to make a special exception for the FAA because we do want traffic to flow. But I have a news flash: Cutting billions of dollars from the budget in a sequester, in a meat-ax way, does have real consequences,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Evanston, said on the House floor. “Head Start [which offers services to help prepare low-income children for school] is cutting 70,000 slots for early childhood education. In my neighboring Indiana, there’s a raffle being held to decide which children are going to be kicked out of the Head Start program.”

Like many discretionary spending programs, Head Start will be cut by a little more than 5 percent. Officials estimate the reduction would mean 70,000 children nationwide would lose access to the program.

Illinois is not holding a raffle to decide what children get into its Head Start program, but it might have to stop offering early childhood education to more than 2,000 children. 

“I’ve worked with Head Start since 1988, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says Lauri Morrison-Frichtl, executive director of the Illinois Head Start Association. “It’s really hurting us and hurting the children and families in the communities we serve.” 

Illinois will determine who gets to stay in the program based on individual need. “Each Head Start program establishes a selection criteria based upon the poverty level, the risk within that family,” she says. “The families that need Head Start service the most are at the top.”

The association estimates that Illinois Head Start programs will also have to lay off about 300 people. Morrison-Frichtl says that Head Start programs in Illinois are trying to find savings wherever they can, but she says many residents do not realize that they cannot simply trim around the edges to accommodate the sequester. “When you say a 5.2 percent cut, most of the community believes: ‘Oh, well, that’s a secretary position. You can absorb that.’”

Critics of Head Start say it is a good place to cut the budget because it does not provide a measurable academic leg up for kids who went through the program. They point to a study issued by the Department of Health and Human Services that found that Head Start kids were doing somewhat better in school than their peers in the first few years but fell even with or in some cases behind their peers by third grade.

Obama made changes to Head Start, requiring programs that are labeled “deficient” to compete for funding. “We’re not just going to put money into programs that don’t work. We will take money and put [it] into programs that do,” Obama said when he announced the change. 

Those who say Head Start is ineffective argue for eliminating federal control and allowing for more competition from private sector offerings. “We’re wasting a lot of money on this program,” David Muhlhausen, a research fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, told NPR. “It’s a shame, but if we devolve the responsibility back to the states and let states try a diversity of ideas, we’ll find better approaches. We’ll end up doing better for these kids in the long run.”

Primary and secondary education is also facing deep reductions under the sequester. In Illinois, approximately $33.4 million will be cut from education. The deepest reductions will be in Title I grants, which provide help to schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families, along with special education. 

“The sequester will likely mean cuts to programs, staff — from reading and math specialists, special education teachers and more — as well as supplies and resources at a time when Illinois school districts have already sustained nearly $900 million in cuts from state education funding, as well as decreases in local revenue due to the recession. At this point, it’s difficult to speculate how districts will absorb these cuts, but we do expect that there will be an impact on staffing levels,” Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said in an email. The reductions will kick in for the 2013-2014 school year. “The biggest cuts will be to those programs and services for children from low-income families and children with disabilities.” 

“At this point, we’re asking school districts to kind of squeeze water from a stone. There’s not waste, fraud and abuse that they can squeeze. Their budgets are already very, very tight,” says David Lloyd, senior policy analyst with the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children. He notes that many of the human services programs that will be reduced under the sequester have also been hit by state cuts in recent years. “It really is kind of a double whammy for children and families in Illinois. So we have the state cuts and the federal cuts coming as well.”

Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says that is also the case for programs meant to prevent and respond to sexual assault and violence against women. “We’re down about $1.2 million in general revenue funding from [Fiscal Year 2009],” she says. She says the largest cut from the sequester will be in funds dedicated to advocacy services and for counseling survivors. 

Basic services such as a 24-hour hotline will remain intact, she says, but women seeking help at the state’s sexual assault crisis centers may have to wait longer for help. “It could mean larger waiting lists. It could mean layoffs,” she says. 

Poskin and others working with domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and response programs across the nation rejoiced when, after more than a year of debate, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. Obama signed the new act, which among other things sets funding levels for programs that work to prevent and combat violence, into law in March. But the funds for those programs are also subject to the sequester. The act will extend services to more people, such as individuals in same-sex relationships and some immigrants who are in the country illegally. Poskin says that is a good thing but admits she is worried about resources. “Even without sequestration, we don’t have enough money to respond to the need. Now with sequester, we have less, and we’ve added new folks who will be eligible for the services.”

“These cuts need to be viewed in a context of cuts that have been going on for several years now,” says Brigid Leahy, director of government relations for Planned Parenthood Illinois. “Human services programs have been severely cut in the last several years in the state budget.” Funding for low-income women’s health care, including access to contraception and breast and cervical cancer screenings, would be reduced under the sequester. Leahy says that nonprofits, such as Planned Parenthood, that get funds from the federal Title X Family Planning Program can also raise support from private donors. But she says county public health clinics will likely have a harder time bearing the reduction. “I don’t know how they are going to handle a 6 percent cut in their budgets.” She said that in Fiscal Year 2005, 54 providers of such programs were funded at nearly $12 million in Illinois and served almost 150,000 people. But after a combination of state and federal cuts, in FY 2011, only $9 million was doled out to 38 providers and about 102,000 were served. “There are agencies that have said, ‘We can’t do this anymore with the money you are giving us.’”

Health care cuts under the sequester do not leave children out. Reductions to funds for vaccinations mean that more than 5,000 Illinois kids will have less access to vaccinations against diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus and whooping cough this year. “Vaccines for children. Really? Does anybody really think that the way to save on our budget is to cut the availability of vaccines for little children?” Schakowsky asked on the U.S. House floor. “Does anybody think there isn’t one tax loophole that can be closed? ... That multimillionaires and billionaires can’t pay a penny more?”

Although those programs target women and children, advocates argue that the reductions will touch everyone. Leahy said that cuts to family planning would cost taxpayers in the long run. “It is much better both financially and for the health of the person to be diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage you can be.” She adds, “For every dollar that you spend on contraceptive care, you are going to get back $3 of taxpayer money that would have gone toward that unintended pregnancy.”

Morrison-Frichtl says that Head Start has a larger impact than just upon the children it prepares for entry into the K-12 system. “We purchase all of our goods from that local community,” she says. “Sometimes Head Start is the largest employer in that community, so it’s really going to impact the economy in each of our local communities.” Lloyd said that at a time when America is trying to produce a future workforce that can compete globally, cuts to education and programs for children hurt the country. “It’s really very harmful — not only for the harm that occurs to people who benefit from the services ... we think that it is also really harmful to our future. This is the time that we need to be making investments in our children, and we’re just not doing it.”

Sharon Parrott, vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, says that while news reporters tend to bite off one piece of the sequester to chew over for a story, the public should keep in mind that it touches so many of the government services they rely on. “It’s also the [Federal Bureau of Investigation], it’s also law enforcement, it’s also the military and the [Environmental Protection Agency], and all these things affect women and children, too,” she says. “It’s going to take a recognition that ultimately, the problem here is that the funding levels provided ... are just too low, too short, to meet our day-to-day government operations priorities and to make those long-term investments.”

Obama’s opponents contend he is not trying to make the cuts work but is instead implementing the sequester in a way that is geared toward generating headlines and pressuring Congress. Shimkus says budget cuts are never without pain. “While there is talk of furloughs and other cuts, how do you cut a budget without some reduction in services? And most cities and states went through a similar process a few years ago. The federal government is finally catching up,” he says. “In order for the budget to really be fixed, we must look at reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. If we do not, we will never balance the federal budget.” 

Illinois Issues, June 2013