Homeless, Hungry, Hung Out to Dry

USDA/Bob Nichols

Students at Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Virginia. More than 31 million students from low-income families benefit from the the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The sequester—a set of deep, across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending set to take effect if lawmakers cannot agree to a longterm budget deal—was never supposed to happen. But as the deadline for reaching an agreement ticks ever closer, Congress appears hopelessly deadlocked to avoid it.

Under the original agreement, sequestration would have triggered $100 billion in cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending on January 1—an 8.2 percent reduction in non-defense expenditures. The “fiscal-cliff” deal reached in December reduced that amount to $85.3 billion and pushed the deadline back to March. Under the new deal, non-defense discretionary spending would be cut by $42.7 billion each year for the next nine years. This is on top of $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade that have already been enacted.

The phrase “discretionary spending” may not send chills down the spine, and most of the discussion about spending cuts have revolved around entitlements. But discretionary spending supports essential programs that help the poor, fund education, and keep us safe. Here are key examples of the impact these cuts would have should they go into effect March 1:


Education gets the largest share of non-defense discretionary funding and would therefore see the largest cuts, bleeding $2.1 billion. This would mean 1.2 million fewer students served under Title I grants to local education agencies. Ten thousand teachers would be at risk for losing their jobs. Cuts to special-education funding through IDEA grants to states would result in nearly 296,000 fewer students served and 7,200 teachers and staff potentially eliminated. 

The youngest might see some of the harshest impact. Funding for early-childhood education will be slashed by just under $600 million. According to calculations by Helen Blank of the National Women’s Law Center, Head Start, which offers educational programs for children ages three to five, will see a $425 million reduction, which will mean up to 70,000 children will no longer be able to enroll. The Child Care and Development Block Grants to fund childcare support in the states would be reduced by $121 million, leaving somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 children without care.

Health and Safety Inspection

According to Anthony Green at Safe Kids, an organization focused on preventing injuries in children, the current sequester would slash more than $2 billion from 14 health- and safety-related agencies. That includes $1.5 billion from the National Institutes for Health, $300 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $200 million from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), $7 million from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and $6 million from the Consumer Product Safety Administration.

What would this mean? For the Consumer Product Safety Commission, it would lead to a big reduction in staff, resulting in 1.9 million dangerous products left on the shelves that would have otherwise have been recalled, according to Green. The White House has estimated that up to 2,100 fewer food inspections would occur with the potential cuts to the FDA. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) might have to pull inspectors off the job, which could mean 1,200 fewer inspections of dangerous workplaces. 


Housing assistance makes up nearly 10 percent of non-defense discretionary spending. Section 8 housing vouchers help more than 2 million low-income families afford private-market housing. Under sequestration, public housing would lose $298 million from its $5.8 billion budget, which would lead to 111,233 families being be cut from its rolls. A hundred million dollars would also be slashed from funding for homelessness assistance, which means that more than 100,000 homeless people would be removed from housing and emergency shelters. Housing Opportunities for Persons with Aids (HOPWA) would lose $15 million from a budget of just $298 million (not to mention that 7,400 patients will lose access to AIDS Drug Assistance Program benefits). The big picture: More people will struggle to find private housing, get into public housing, or find assistance if they end up homeless.

Nutrition and Health Services

While the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, is exempt from sequestration, other nutrition programs aren’t. Child-nutrition programs would be cut by more than $350 million, and the Women, Infants, and Children program—which gives about 9 million low-income mothers and their children supplemental food and provides health-care referrals—would cut off about 600,000 participants. Mothers and children aren’t the only ones who will be impacted, however. Seniors who rely on home-delivered meals will see 4 million fewer of them.

Meanwhile, children’s health programs would be cut by $243 million, meaning 144,000 fewer children would be vaccinated. Cuts to the Maternal & Child Health Block Grant would serve 4.58 million fewer children, women, and families. Cuts to the Mental Health Block Grant program would leave 373,000 mentally ill people without services. Nearly 8,900 homeless people with mental illness would also lose treatment, outreach, housing, and support with cuts to the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness program.


While new numbers haven’t yet been released, the most disasterous effects of allowing the sequester to take effect would be on jobs. The original sequester would have cut nearly $5 million from Re-employment and Eligibility Assessments, in-person re-employment assistance for those on unemployment. More than 80,000 jobless people would lose these resources. The Employment Service, a system that connects jobseekers with employment opportunities, would reach 1.2 million fewer people. More than 400,000 people would have been dropped from Workforce Investment Act State Grant programs that provide employment and training services. March’s sequester will be smaller, but it will still have a huge impact on these programs. Meanwhile, the White House estimates that a $902 million reduction to the Small Business Administration’s loan guarantees would hamper the ability for small businesses to create jobs, while cuts to the Economic Development Administration would result in 1,000 fewer jobs in the private sector. Federal agencies will have to furlough hundreds of thousands of employees—all this while the unemployment rate stands at 7.9 percent. 

There are plenty of other programs that will suffer if the sequester goes through. Even if we might not realize how much federal spending impacts our lives, cuts to these programs would be broadly felt; we all benefit from food safety inspections and job creation. Yet Congress seems determined to let these drastic cuts go through, and Republicans, who originally found them equally unpalatable, have now indicated that they think these cuts could be the best option for deficit reduction. But sequestration is far from a scalpel that can trim the fat off of government. It’s a chainsaw that will tear apart vital programs. 

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