A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration's Cuts
Sequestration, that odd name for the across-the-board federal spending cuts of $85 billion this year, was initially treated by some media outlets as little more than political theater, with the only question being whether it would play better in the end for Democrats or Republicans. That story line eventually morphed into a debate over whether the cuts would have any discernible impact this year at all. This was partly prompted by President Obama’s dire (and, in hindsight, unwise) warnings of instant calamity if the cuts were to go into effect. And yet Congress didn’t reach a budget deal, the sequester cuts were triggered, and nothing seemed to have changed.
The lack of immediate consequences was, of course, entirely predictable: most of the cuts were to be rolled out over a series of months. But now that suddenly stretched agencies have begun to study their spreadsheets and future cash flows, it’s clear that a new wave of hardship has begun to sweep the country. Head Start programs are losing classrooms; cancer clinics are turning away Medicare patients; funding for critical scientific research is in jeopardy. The already compromised ability of our nation to meet the basic needs of millions of its people—from shelter and food to childcare and medical treatment—is about to be further degraded.
As with many places in the country still reeling from the recession, the residents of Kings County, where Lemoore is located, aren’t in a position to absorb new cuts. Nearly one in five people here lives in poverty, with many earning subsistence wages harvesting crops or working in the dairies that dot the countryside. In a region where decently paying jobs are hard to come by, the sequester promises to furlough more than 1,000 civilian employees on the base. As the Hanford Sentinel reported, this could have a major effect; a 2008 assessment found that the civilian payroll there totaled more than $73 million. “That’s such a key part of the local economy,” a Kings County administrator told the paper. “That’s why I worry about it having an impact.”
Like much of inland California, the region is solidly Republican; as I enter the county on Highway 198, I drive by lettuce fields and almond trees, passing a black-and-white sign, courtesy of the local Tea Party, that reads Only Free Men Own Guns. But no one I speak with is interested in discussing the sequester as political theater; they’re too busy trying to deal with the real-world fallout.
“Being the conservative individual I am, we don’t have people sitting around chewing gum,” says Bob Hoskins, who directs the Kings County Housing Authority, which manages affordable housing and provides Housing Choice vouchers for low-income residents. “I wish they’d go after the misspending, the fraud and so forth,” he adds of the politicians in Washington. “Here, we provide services for people who need help, and the sequester is definitely having an impact.”
In February, a public housing agency in Washington State made news when it announced that, because of the sequester, it wouldn’t be issuing new Section 8 housing vouchers to replace those tenants who had left the program. But that’s nothing new for Hoskins, who hasn’t been able to issue replacement vouchers for the last two years. Since 2009, the number of voucher recipients has shrunk by 13 percent, and funding cuts have forced participating tenants to pay a greater share of the rent. For many cash-strapped agencies that serve the poor, the sequester is simply the most recent chapter of an austerity agenda already in place, opening up new holes in a sinking ship.
“Our staff is cut down to the bone,” says Hoskins. He notes that they’ve already eliminated four out of six maintenance worker positions and outsourced groundskeeping. The agency currently has nearly 6,000 people waiting to receive vouchers, in a county whose population is only 151,000. The sequester guarantees that new families in need of rental subsidies—like the several homeless families who are living in the motel where I stay—will continue to go without. And so goes the nation: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the sequester will cause nearly 110,000 families to lose their housing vouchers this year and will strip $96 million from homeless assistance programs [see “How Sequestration Hurts the Homeless,” by Greg Kaufmann, in this issue].
* * *