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The human costs of sequestration

Staff March 7, 2013 Opinion No Comments

By Thomas Wolber
Assistant Professor of MFL

Sequestration is something that happens elsewhere, in a far-away place called Washington where they speak their own lingo. Nobody even seems to know what the term means, except that it has something to do with the budget. It’s all very abstract and definitely not something you need to worry about, right? Wrong!

Sequestration is now official, and it will, directly or indirectly, affect each one of us. When $85 billion are being cut from the federal budget this fiscal year (and $1.2 trillion over the next ten years), there is no escape. You can run, but you can’t hide. These cuts will hit home, like it or not.

To begin with, thousands of folks working in the defense industry will be furloughed (it could be a member of your family). A total of 750,000 to 800,000 people will have to take unpaid leaves in 2013, creating renewed hardship and misery everywhere. While some critical programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are exempt from the budget cuts, many smaller discretionary programs are not.

The following areas, and many more, will be decimated: homeland security, disaster relief, public health, food safety, unemployment benefits, job training, infrastructure improvements, housing subsidies, the federal nutrition program (WIC), K-12 education, environmental protection and the national parks.

In many instances, it is the neediest who will suffer most – the children, students, elderly, women, unemployed, sick, and homeless.

Congress members do not seem to have a clue about the human side of sequestration. Their paychecks are safe, and the majority of Congressmen are millionaires anyway.

Let’s have a closer look at what the sequestration process means for higher education. If you happen to be a needy student dependent on federal aid and work-study money, then you will also be affected. $49 million will be deleted from the federal work-study program, eliminating some 33,000 students from participation.

College-preparation programs such as TRIO and Gear Up are also taking a hit: 71,000 fewer supplemental grants will be awarded next year. The arbitrary, indiscriminate across-the-board reductions that went into effect March 1 will hit those students the most whose families cannot make up the loss. As a result, fewer students may be able to stay in college or to go to college in the first place.

Because of the uncertainty, many institutions of higher learning are delaying hiring decisions. Some have begun to reduce the number of graduate students, postdoctoral students, and researchers because of the pending cuts in federal research money.

Ohio State University alone could lose up to $133 million this year. In the long run, these austerity measures will lead to fewer scientific breakthroughs and fewer marketable ideas. Students in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) fields will choose other careers, putting the U.S. at an international disadvantage for decades to come.

“The Chronicle of Higher Education” came to this sobering conclusion: “Thousands of researchers will lose their jobs, thousands of students will lose their financial aid, and thousands of unemployed workers will be turned away from college work-force programs.”

Some conservatives say the cuts are “modest” and that “doomsday” warnings are premature. It is certainly true that not all cuts will be felt right away as they are being phased in gradually. For example, by law federal employees must be given a thirty-days notice before unpaid furloughs can commence.

But eventually, the pain will be felt deeply not only by those directly involved but also by those who will be affected by the ripple effect of the reductions. Consumers will delay car and house purchases, go to restaurants and on trips less often, etc. The cuts will also slow down development on federal lands and waters and result in lack of income and taxes.

The precise impact is unknown because this is uncharted territory, but reputable analysts agree that the fragile national economy will experience a decline and slip into another recession if the cuts are implemented as planned – all because of the gridlock in Washington.

The current fight over the budget also creates the perception that Congress is dysfunctional and that America is in decline. International investors, unless they are vultures, will be reluctant to do business here. No wonder cockroaches enjoy a better reputation at the moment than Congress members with their reckless, irresponsible brinkmanship.
As a teacher, I routinely write letters of recommendations for students applying for study abroad, graduate school or employment. If Congress were a student of mine, my grade would probably be an “F.” The American people deserve better.

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