The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More and more Americans are feeling the effects of the sequester

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Back in April, lawmakers had a brief moment of panic over the sequester. The across-the-board spending cuts threatened to cause delays at airports across the country. So Congress quickly passed a bill to divert $253 million to air-traffic controllers. Crisis averted.

Since then, however, politicians haven't said much about the rest of the $85 billion in federal spending cuts that went into effect March 1. The sequester will automatically cut defense spending by 7.9 percent and everything else by 4.6 percent, chopping bluntly through everything from national parks to R&D.

But so far, the political backlash has been restrained. The U.S. economy is still chugging along, after all. And even President Obama seems resigned to the cuts these days, preferring instead to highlight America's shrinking deficit.

So it's worth asking: Whatever happened to the sequester? Is it still a big deal? We decided to check in on what was going on around the country. As it turns out, plenty of people have started to notice — about 37 percent in a May 19 poll said they'd been personally affected. And the sequester is starting to have an impact around the country, although many of the cuts haven't yet sunk in. Here's a round-up:

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in May found that 37 percent of Americans say they've been negatively affected, up from 25 percent in March. And 18 percent say they've felt a "major impact."

Not surprisingly, those most affected by the cuts are sharply opposed to sequestration. About 80 percent of those who say they've felt a "major impact" oppose the budget cuts.  (The public as a whole opposes the cuts by a 56 percent to 35 percent margin.)

And what sorts of impacts is sequestration actually having? Here are a few examples pulled from various press accounts:

--Head Start programs for preschoolers are shrinking. Although these budget cuts don't formally hit until July, parents are starting to notice. "At least one Head Start classroom will be eliminated in the next school year in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, since the region will lose $230,000 in federal funding for the fiscal year beginning July 1," Chaz Muth reports. "This means at least 15 preschoolers who would normally have been eligible for Head Start in this region will not have a seat in the program."

That's just one district. Across the country, the National Head Start Association estimates that sequestration cuts will eventually keep some 70,000 children out of Head Start programs — mostly low-income children — out of roughly 1 million enrolled.

(By the way, here's a long discussion with economist James Heckman about the value of Head Start for young children.)

--Public defenders are facing furloughs and federal courts are getting bogged down. "Poor people who wind up in federal court and need legal representation are waiting longer for trials, because so many public defenders are being forced to stay home, unpaid, said federal public defender Lisa Peebles of Syracuse, N.Y. Her staff is taking 20 days off, some of the longest furloughs among federal employees." That's from CNN's Jennifer Liberto.

All told, public defenders have seen a 10 percent cut to their budget — and a 12 percent cut in salaries. By one estimate, some 2,000 judiciary workers will be laid off or furloughed this year between March 1 and Sept. 30. Two federal judges on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently expressed worry that the cuts pose "an existential threat to the right of indigent defendants to have publicly funded legal representation."

--Federal housing programs are starting to deny aid. For instance, KCTV is reporting that 33 families in Kansas City, Missouri, recently faced eviction because of cuts to federal housing programs. .All told, some 125,000 families could lose assistance from the housing choice voucher program due to the sequestration cuts, the White House has estimated.

My colleague Michael Laris recently followed a man in Fairfax, Va., whose housing voucher was rescinded in April. He added this: "Assistance for up to 150 homeless individuals or families, and others who had reached the top of Fairfax’s years-long waiting list to get a voucher, will be blocked in 2013, officials said."

Some smaller programs also are getting pinched. Michigan has just seen the elimination of a federal program that provided 21,000 schoolchildren across the state with a $137 clothing allowance each August.

--National parks are scaling back their services. Nearly 279 million people visited the country's national parks in 2011. This summer, those parks will have somewhat fewer services. The Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel summarizes a new report (pdf) on park-service cutbacks after $153.4 million in sequestration cuts:

Grand Canyon National Park will be cleaning its restrooms only once a day, rather than twice, while Olympic National Park in Washington "will not open flush-toilet areas and will not service restrooms and pick up trash as frequently."
Cape Cod National Seashore is canceling its guided walks and education talks, George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Virginia will be able to provide educational programming to only half as many school groups, and Glacier National Park is reducing the number of days and hours that its visitor centers operate.

The National Park Service has also put a freeze on hiring, leaving about 900 positions unfilled. (The service has some 15,000 employees in all.)

The military is starting to see cuts materialize. In May, Blue Star Families conducted a survey of service members and their families. Many have already noticed the budget cuts. "[T]he impact of sequestration has been notable in the form of deployment cancellations and delays; but there have also been increased uncertainties with scheduled [Permanent Change of Station] moves, and DoD schools are enduring budget cuts and furloughs that are impacting the education of our children."

Time's Alison Buckholtz reported on a few of the smaller changes that military members have encountered. "Some military families," she noted, "have to maintain two homes they can’t afford, because a work transfer was delayed after the next house was already bought." Also: "A carrier deployment was called off, and with it the planned for “at-sea” pay subsidies that some families depend on."

Some federal agencies have begun to furlough their employees. This really varies from agency to agency. Government Executive has a helpful breakdown of all the different responses.

For instance, the IRS has already announced five specific dates that it will close its offices and send employees home without pay. The first occurred on May 24. The Labor Department has sent 4,700 employees furlough notices back on March 5. By contrast, other agencies like the State Department and Justice Department have said they'll be able to avoid furloughs.

A few outside experts are worried that blunt furloughs could prove counterproductive. Linda Blimes of Harvard's Kennedy School told Marketplace that "if a taxpayer makes a mistake during one of the IRS’s furloughed days, it means more work for the revenue service in the end" — in the form of extra audits later on, say.

Cancer clinics are turning away patients. "Cancer clinics across the country have begun turning away thousands of Medicare patients, blaming the sequester budget cuts," my colleague Sarah Kliff reported in April. "Oncologists say the reduced funding, which took effect for Medicare on April 1, makes it impossible to administer expensive chemotherapy drugs while staying afloat financially."

So far, Congress hasn't done anything about these cuts, although Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) has a bill to restore the funding for these specific clinics. It's not clear that this bill would completely solve the problem, however. Some recent reports have suggested that cancer clinics have been consolidating for years as a result of long-term budget squeezes rather than because of the specific 2 percent Medicare cuts in the sequester.

States are paring back unemployment benefits. Here's the scene in Ohio, reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Gwen Turner learned the news from a robocall: Her unemployment benefits were going to drop by 16 percent." In May, thousands of jobless Ohio residents saw their benefits fall from $313 per week to $263 per week, on average, as a result of the sequester.

All told, some 2 million Americans are expected to see a drop in federal jobless benefits, though states will implement the cuts at different times. "The long-term jobless in California got an 18 percent reduction in their weekly benefits starting at the end of April, while Rhode Island implemented a 12.2 percent cut," reports Arthur Delaney at Huffington Post. "Instead of a percentage reduction, the long-term jobless in South Carolina will miss benefits altogether during three separate weeks this summer."

Congress has already rushed to fix two problems caused by the sequester — air travel delays and a lack of meat inspectors. Back in March, lawmakers quickly rustled up $55 million to prevent the furlough of 8,400 U.S. meat inspectors this summer. Experts had warned that those sequester cuts could have driven up meat prices and created shortages in grocery stores.

Then, in April, Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow the Transportation Department to shift as much as $253 million to the air traffic control system. This came just a week after reports that problems with air-traffic control could cause delays at airports.

In both cases, politicians acted quickly. But it's not clear whether Congress will try to restore any other programs cut by the sequester, or whether the air-traffic and meat cases were two special exceptions. So far, the cuts to Head Start and unemployment benefits haven't riled Congress the way air-travel delays did.

It's worth noting that there's a growing divide in public opinion here. In that ABC News/Washington Post poll, about 80 percent of those who say they've felt a "major impact" oppose the budget cuts. By contrast, those who say they've felt no impact — still about two-thirds of the country — are split, with 46 percent in favor and 46 percent against.

Further reading: 

--Here's Dylan Matthew's comprehensive FAQ on the sequester.

--Bloomberg's Evan Soltas points out that sequestration is just getting started. In 2014, the cuts will lop a further $92 billion off the budget. And Congress will have slightly more leeway to decide which agencies get hit. Currently, the House is planning a 26 percent cut in the budgets for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. That could prove much more noticeable.