An important new initiative from Half in Ten, a national campaign to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years, and the Coalition on Human Needs, is putting a face on irresponsible “slash and burn” deficit reduction by showing how it would damage real lives. The organizations are collecting people’s stories so that the cruel consequences of draconian cuts to key federal programs are plain to see.

Consider the story of Carolyn, who was in her 40s when her husband of twenty-five years left her with two daughters. She had never received any kind of assistance and describes turning to her local community action agency as “the hardest thing I had ever done.” Her fears were quickly allayed as she “was treated with respect and was never made to feel like a drain on society.” She enrolled in a workforce development program that helped her with tuition and books while she attended community college.   

“I went to college five days a week and spent the weekend working, so I never had a day off,” writes Carolyn. “When I graduated I became a Registered Nurse, able to support myself and my family. I couldn’t have done it without the Federal Workforce Development Program and the supportive services the local Community Action Agency provided.”

But the Boehner-led “so be it” Republicans would nearly eliminate funding for Community Service Block Grants (CSBG) for the remainder of 2011, and President Obama proposes cutting it in half in 2012. The cuts would disrupt the antipoverty services provided by 1,065 community action agencies nationwide to over 20 million low-income people, including 5 million children, 2.3 million seniors and 1.7 million people with disabilities. What makes the cuts even more insane is that the agencies generate $6.54 from state, local, and private sources for every federal dollar received, according to the Coalition on Human Needs.

People like Carolyn would be hit doubly hard—not only would the community action agencies reach fewer people, but the kind of workforce development programs that allowed her to change her life would also be slashed by Republicans. In fact, at a time when 14 million Americans are out of work, more than 8 million adults and youth would lose access to job training and other employment services. Job training under the Workforce Investment Act programs for adults, youths, and dislocated workers would essentially be shut down until July 2012.

But, hey, at least folks can turn to higher education, right? Actually, not really. At a time when the US is now twelfth in the world in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree, the GOP bill would result in 9.4 million low-income college students losing all or some of their Pell grant. It would reduce the maximum Pell grant by a whopping 17.4 percent! (Obama would increase Pell Grant funding by 20 percent.)

The GOP cuts would be a disaster for students like this senior at University of Missouri who anonymously writes, “I will be applying to medical school at the end of this year. I come from a single-parent household and my mother makes about $20,000/year; hardly enough to put me through college. Without federal aid such as the Pell Grant, I would not have enough money to attend college at all.” 

The student also works as a medical assistant at Planned Parenthood, where the GOP would eliminate all federal funding. That means zero funding for 820 health centers that do 90 percent of their work on preventive, primary care.

“I know first-hand how important the services we provide to people really are,” writes the Mizzou student. “The majority of our patients literally cannot afford to go anywhere else, and without our care, they simply would not receive services such as cancer screenings, birth control, and so much more.”

Nor would many of them be able to heat their homes, if the Chainsaw Republicans have their way, and President Obama’s 2012 budget isn’t much better. Despite the fact that a record number of households are expected to need assistance to pay for heating or cooling, the cuts in the GOP bill would essentially wipe out the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) contingency fund for 2011. The contingency fund provides aid during periods of particularly severe weather or energy price increases. Obama’s cut of about $2.5 billion would deny assistance to more than 3 million households.

That doesn’t sit very well with Kimberly Thompson, who turned to her local community action agency when her 89-year-old, very independent grandmother was facing “nursing home institutionalization.” Through the CSBG, the agency was able to purchase a walker for her, deliver a hot lunch daily, and “provide a home care worker to do light housekeeping and help her with personal care.” The agency also signed her up for LIHEAP and “weatherized her home which lowered her utility bills and gave her more money each month to buy food and medicine.”

“All of these services enabled my grandmother to stay at home for the rest of her life until she died at the age of 92, three years later,” writes Thompson. “If she didn’t have those community services, she would have had to move to a nursing home which would have been a much greater cost to the government—and therefore, the taxpayers—and also would have caused her much emotional distress.” 

What is most maddening about the budget debate is that few legislators are talking about alternatives like increasing revenues by closing obscene tax loopholes and corporate giveaways and making the wealthy pay their fair share. Instead, the proposals hit the most vulnerable people the hardest—lower-income people, children, seniors, people with disabilities, unemployed workers and others. (For a “Better Budget for All” check out this report.) 

Kudos to Half in Ten and the Coalition on Human Needs for collecting these stories and making these budget cuts real. If you have a story to tell, please share it. The only way we win this budget battle is to show the very real consequences of these abstract numbers being thrown around Washington, DC, and then organize and demand alternatives.