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Budget slashing hits most vulnerable

Dr. Rita Nahta, a breast cancer researcher, speaks with graduate student Bridgette Peake about possible research methods in Nahta’s lab at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. The National Institutes of Health overall budget has shrunk by about $1.6 billion because of the federal budget sequester. (Associated Press)
Dr. Rita Nahta, a breast cancer researcher, speaks with graduate student Bridgette Peake about possible research methods in Nahta’s lab at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. The National Institutes of Health overall budget has shrunk by about $1.6 billion because of the federal budget sequester. (Associated Press)

Effects of the $85 billion in cuts are already being felt

The first warnings about the spending cuts were dire.

In March, as the sweeping $85 billion reductions known as sequestration kicked in, President Barack Obama called them “stupid” and “arbitrary” and said they could thwart economic progress. Opponents said the administration was using scare tactics, predicting doom even though the cuts amounted to a tiny slice of the federal budget.

Public opinion is divided: Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News-Washington Post poll in May disapproved of the cuts, but far fewer – 37 percent – reported they’d been personally hurt. Still, that was up from 25 percent in March. Support varies by income, according to the poll; it’s highest for those with incomes of $100,000 or more.

More than three months into the sequester, it’s far too soon to measure the full impact of the start of a 10-year budget-cutting plan that was supposed to be so undesirable that it would force both sides on Capitol Hill to come up with something better. That didn’t happen.

Many more furloughs are planned. Bills have been introduced to spare certain people, such as cancer patients, from the cuts’ effects. Others have been exempted. Congress, for example, passed a measure putting air traffic controllers back to work after flights were delayed around the country.

But there is pain and anxiety, too, notably among the poor, the elderly and the sick – and social service agencies that serve them. Here are some of their stories:

Jessica Harrell had to reassure her 4-year-old daughter she hadn’t been thrown out of school when her Head Start classroom in Kentucky was shut down.

Tishauna Douglas, a teacher in the program, had to figure out how she’d support her three children after losing her job

Nationally, Head Start, which serves nearly a million children of low-income families, had to slice 5 percent off its $8.1 billion budget. Some chapters have eliminated classes, scaled back transportation or shortened their school year.

When the Head Start program for 16 counties in western Kentucky lost about $750,000 in funding, it laid off about 50 people, mostly teachers, and reduced its roster by more than 160 children, according to Aubrey Nehring, chief executive officer of Audubon Area Community Services in Owensboro, Ky. Three centers were closed entirely.

What’s especially difficult, he says, is that about 75 percent of these Head Start parents were working or in school. “They cannot afford child care and still work,” Nehring said. “Most have minimal family support. That’s the saddest part of the story. You have families making real progress climbing out of poverty, then you come and take that opportunity away from them.”

Harrell, 26, waited months to get her daughter, Vamira, into Head Start. She’d drop her off before heading to a paralegal job, then pick her up after work (she was laid off early this year). She noticed significant changes in her daughter. “She can count better, she knows her alphabet, she knows different animals,” Harrell said. “She learned a whole lot there.”

When her daughter’s classroom was among a dozen eliminated, Harrell said, “it broke my heart,” even more so when her little girl asked, “Why did they kick me out?”

Douglas wonders why Head Start has to make sacrifices. “How can you make cuts in education? It’s the root of everything,” she said. “The politicians should cut the money they get for themselves. … That would be a great idea.”

The letter from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity felt like a punch in the face to Charles Medler.

“You have exhausted your Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) Tier III benefits,” the letter read. No more were available.

The 57-year-old from Interlachen thought he had four more weeks of benefits coming. It was just $275 a week, but it made a huge difference.

“You plan, ‘Well, OK. We’re good for another month or month and a half. I still have a little more time left,’ ” Medler said. “And you start planning for that, and then all of a sudden, bang, the rug gets pulled out from underneath you?”

Tier III are federally funded benefits that start when a worker has exhausted 19 weeks of payments by the state. But while other states made the cuts by trimming the amount individuals receive, Florida’s solution was to lop off the last four weeks of benefits for up to 100,000 laid-off workers.

It was just the latest setback for Medler. In November 2011, he was laid off by Georgia-Pacific Wood Products after more than 30 years. He took his pension early, which reduced his monthly payment from $1,000 to $627.

Medler said the loss of their middle class lifestyle pushed his already emotionally fragile wife over the edge. Their divorce is all but final.

After having to let two cars go, he’s left with a 16-year-old minivan with about 150,000 miles on it. He has two mortgages on his home, totaling about $15,000 more than the current appraised value.

While handing out resumes and applying for jobs, Medler takes whatever odd jobs he can find. He’s dug ditches, mowed yards, raked leaves and fixed pipes. He also volunteers at food pantries and churches – partly to give back, but also in hopes that it might lead to a job.

“It has been a very life-changing experience,” he said gravely.

Rita Nahta’s first hint that something was awry was when the research scientist at the Emory University School of Medicine opened her email several weeks ago. She noticed something different about her federal grant for breast cancer studies: It was for three months.

Not a year’s allotment as she was accustomed to – about $208,000 – but just a quarter of that.

The National Institutes of Health overall budget has shrunk by about $1.6 billion because of the sequester, and Nahta, an assistant professor of pharmacology, hematology and oncology at the Atlanta school, said she doesn’t know when, or if, there will be another check.

Nahta can’t hide her frustration. “I’m concerned,” she said, “our scientific programs will be undermined and that will set us back as a country,” delaying important discoveries.

For years, Melvin Lewis was the ideal candidate for the Meals on Wheels program that faithfully rolled up to his door in Maine twice a week. A cancer survivor and diabetic, he scraped by on a tight budget and had difficulty getting around.

Lewis dropped the program for several months when he moved into a nursing home, but after his health improved this spring, he settled into his own efficiency apartment. The 79-year-old widower then reapplied – only to discover it wasn’t that simple.

Spectrum Generations, the social service agency that serves the elderly, disabled adults and their families in six central Maine counties, has been trying to absorb a $70,000 loss in federal aid even as it faces increased demands for help. For the first time in its 40-year history, agency officials say, there’s a waiting list for its Meals on Wheels program. Lewis is among about 110 names.

“The stories of people waiting are horrendous,” said Lynda Johnson, one of the agency’s nutrition coordinators. “There are people who have terminal cancer, people in wheelchairs or with dementia. It’s been horrible. It’s hard to say, ‘No, I cannot help you at this time.’ ”

Lewis, a former textile mill worker, said he has little left after paying rent and buying about $150 in groceries each month, though his daughter often helps out. “It’s very hard to live this way,” he said. “I’m almost 80. I have a few good years left and I’d like to live them in comfort.”

Lewis said he’s been told why there’s less money available: “Government, politics – I just don’t understand it half the time.”

Jay Jesse believes there’s fat in the defense budget, but this is not the way to trim it.

He had to lay off about 50 workers this spring when his Colorado company, a military information technology contractor, didn’t receive an expected $20 million from the Air Force. The reason, he said, was the sequester.

“It’s certainly not fatal, but it’s a big blow,” said Jesse, president and CEO of Intelligent Software Solutions Inc. The loss amounts to about 10 percent of annual revenues for the Colorado Springs-based company whose primary customer is the Department of Defense.

The $20 million was part of a larger contract to build a system that will allow the military and intelligence agencies to better share terrorism or threat information, which he said is especially relevant after the Boston Marathon bombing. Questions were raised then about whether authorities had shared with Boston officials warnings from Russia about one of the suspects.

As of now, Jesse said he doesn’t know if the project will proceed.

“I’m not one of those people who say the world will come to an end if we don’t get our money,” Jesse said. “But the better we share our information, the less likely something will slip through the cracks.”

The layoffs – less than 10 percent of the company’s payroll – were the first for the company in six years.

“These were very good people and we hated to see that we could no longer support them,” he says. “You have the feeling you’re not living up to your end of the commitment.”

Jesse says he thinks it’s possible to cut as much as 15 percent of the defense budget without doing any harm.

“The problem is sequestration just hacks with an axe indiscriminately,” he says. “I couldn’t randomly cut 10 percent of my budget without killing my company. I do think this is a dangerous activity.”

The consequences, Jesse said, may not be known for years.

“Uncertainty is the word I’ve heard a million times in the last year,” he said. “This isn’t uncertainty inflicted upon us by an enemy. This is an uncertainty we built ourselves.”


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