Bracing for Sequestration’s Impact in California

Continued gridlock in Congress, driven by the two parties’ competing philosophies in reducing the federal deficit, finally led last week to the triggering of sequestration, a series of automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts totaling more than $1 trillion between now and 2021.

Many economists have raised legitimate questions about the timing of the push for federal austerity along with its economic impact. Unlike state governments, the federal government is not required to balance its budget every year. In fact historically the federal government has increased spending and taken on short-term debt to stimulate a struggling economy.  Yet now, despite gross domestic product having actually contracted during the most recent quarter, federal spending will be dropping to its lowest levels in years.

This will have dire consequences for the American economy.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts that recent federal austerity efforts will reduce GDP growth by 1.5% in 2013. Meanwhile sequestration is expected to result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs to government employees and contractors and others impacted by the ripple effects.

When it was originally conceived, sequestration was never intended to actually go into effect. Rather it was designed to be so harsh that it would force the two parties to compromise in order to forestall it. As of now that gamble has backfired. Now that these automatic spending cuts have been set in motion, and with no obvious solution in place to retroactively turn them off, it’s time to assess what they will mean for children and families in California and across the country.

Fortunately several programs targeting low-income populations were exempted from sequestration. These include Title IV-E foster care and adoption assistance, Medicaid and CHIP, TANF, and food stamps.  However, a number of critical children’s discretionary programs will now be subjected to a 5.3% cut for the current fiscal year. Furthermore, the majority of these programs have already had their service capacities diminished due to being flat-funded since 2010 while costs have risen.

According to a White House breakdown, the human costs are staggering.  Nationally, 70,000 kids would lose access to Head Start (including 8,200 in California), 30,000 children (2,000 Californians) would lose eligibility for child care subsidies, and 373,000 mentally ill adults and seriously emotionally disturbed children would not receive needed mental health services.  An already stressed Californian education system will lose $87 million in elementary and secondary education funds and $63 million for special education.

Core child welfare programs will also be impacted. The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) estimates that California will lose over $3 million from Title IV-B Child Welfare Services and Promoting Safe and Stable Families, which are the primary federal sources of child abuse and neglect prevention funding. The state also stands to lose dollars from the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) programs while having its Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) allotment cut by almost $11 million.

Though these cuts would themselves be devastating, the reality is that the reductions scheduled in 2013 pale in comparison to subsequent years.  Non-defense discretionary programs are reduced by about $29 billion this year, but would be slashed by about $39 billion annually going forward. Though these programs make up only about 13% of federal spending, they would be responsible for 35% of the sequester.

The impacts of sequestration likely won’t be felt immediately.  However as these cuts are implemented over the next few months the ability of these important programs to serve the vulnerable populations that they target will be severely undermined.  It’s our duty as advocates to keep the pressure on our representatives in Congress so that these cuts are overturned sooner rather than later.

Sean Hughes is a member of The Imprint’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer. 

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