by Brad Wong/Equal Voice News
Weeks after a political stalemate set in motion $85 billion in federal spending cuts for fiscal year 2013, sequestration has shifted from a political debate in the halls of Congress to a looming reality in neighborhood streets – especially in some of the poorest areas of the country.
In Georgia, the drop in federal dollars is taking an 11 percent bite out of extended unemployment benefits that more than 61,000 Georgians depend on for food, utilities and housing, according to the Rome News-Tribune.
In Mississippi, 2,300 children under the age of 3 will likely lose the care and early education they receive in federally-supported Early Head Start programs.
And in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, sequester will mean cuts in legal aid services and housing vouchers for low-income families and reductions in job-search services for the unemployed.
Many community organizations that serve low-income families are already feeling the money pinch.
“Anytime this happens, the ones who can least afford being affected are affected. That’s pretty much it,” said Ron Rogers, chief executive of South Texas Adult Resource and Training Center and a member of a local workforce development board.
“It’s not an intelligent cut where you look at programs that are inefficient. This is pretty much a whack.”
Rogers said that the workforce training board, which teaches basic job-hunting skills, recently learned of a $900,000 sequestration-related budget cut. “When that comes out in the wash, that means you’ll be serving less people out of work,” he said.
The Housing Authority of the city of Brownsville, Texas, is waiting for word from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on reduced federal support, Jim Hargrove, HACB’s interim chief executive, said.
The federal money would have gone to Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income families. “We are going to be looking at a reduction in the voucher program,” Hargrove said.
The housing authority serves more than 2,160 families, but Hargrove refrained from estimating how many families the federal cuts might affect.
“I am not going to send tremors through the community,” he said. “We are serving the poorest of the poor.”
Sequestration is slicing $500,000 in support from Weslaco-based Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal assistance to disadvantaged and low-income residents.
On top of that, the legal aid office is losing $3 million in other federal support and facing stagnant state funding, all of which has prompted the issuing of layoff notices to 65 staff members, spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said.
Each year, the organization helps about 22,000 families along the Texas-Mexico border and will have to turn away about 5,000 families because of the funding decline.
“Pretty much, every division of the organization saw some sort of loss,” she said, noting that the layoffs include attorneys.
Office attorneys and staff members assist veterans, domestic violence victims and families facing homelessness with a variety of legal issues, including divorces, wills, foreclosures and child custody questions.
Although the office is doing its best to serve those in need given the cuts, Martinez said there are consequences to not having legal access.
“You’re going to have a lot of people who are going to be taken advantage of. They’re not going to know how to assert their legal rights,” she said.
“When you have a domestic violence victim, it’s a life-and-death situation.”
Martinez added that people without legal representation might lose court cases they could have won had they had an attorney’s help.
In Mississippi, federal cuts will mean about 2,300 children in the Early Head Start program will not be able to participate in the program in the fall, said Carol Burnett, director of Moore Community House in Biloxi.
That equates to about a 5 percent cut, which will hurt low-income parents who cannot afford child care services.
“The parent might not be able to stay working because they won’t have child care,” said Burnett, who also works with the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.
“This is the opposite of what we want.”
Erik Stegman of Half in Ten agrees. He coordinates a network of grassroots partners and coalitions for Half in Ten, a Center for American Progress project that seeks to cut poverty by 50 percent in 10 years.
“It’s up to Congress to act soon to make sure that this pain setting in for communities across the country doesn’t become a permanent reality,” he said.
“Right now, there’s nothing temporary about this.”
Brad Wong is assistant news editor for Equal Voice News.