The sequester isn’t so scary—that’s what The Washington Post proclaimed this week. It’s an attitude many people in Washington seem to have adopted, as momentum to solve the slashing automatic cuts has almost entirely vanished.
But for Sharon MacGregor, a graphic designer and medical education worker in Paterson, New Jersey, the sequester is terrifying indeed. MacGregor was laid off last July when her company went belly-up, and she is still looking for work. She is one of the 4.3 million* Americans who are “long-term unemployed,” which is defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as being unable to find work for more than twenty-seven weeks.
Once you become long-term unemployed, you start drawing from the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation fund, which was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008 as the economy cratered. The idea was to throw a lifeline to people who exhausted the standard twenty-six weeks of state unemployment benefits, in a recession that, even today amidst a so-called recovery, has an average unemployment length of almost thirty-seven weeks.
But the EUC, like most federal programs, is subject to the automatic sequester cuts, and will lose $2.4 billion this fiscal year. (That represents 8 percent of the $30 billion in domestic non-Medicare budget sequester cuts.) It’s a big chunk of money—and it’s being taken away from the people who have already suffered the most during the downturn. The average resulting benefit reduction is $43 per week, out of an average EUC benefit of $289.
States have some flexibility about when to implement the cuts, and New Jersey chose June 30—meaning that very soon, MacGregor will get her first check where her benefits have been sequestered by the US Treasury. Because she collects close to the maximum EUC benefit, MacGregor expects to lose $225 every two weeks.
“I support myself. That’s $500 less I’ll have a month,” she told The Nation. “Unemployment was already a significant cut—like 50 percent of my old salary. So now I’m going down even more, to about 40 percent of my old salary.”
MacGregor said she was already on a bare-bones budget, buying only what she needs, and receiving a rent reduction in exchange for caring for an infirm neighbor. She said the sequester cut will force her to extend her credit purchases and borrow from her parents—after having a career of her own for over twenty years now. “This is gonna… it’s not enough,” she said. “I don’t have enough to make ends meet right now.”
She added that she is allowed to work part-time in addition to her unemployment benefits, but can’t earn more than 20 percent of her unemployment check, or else she’ll lose the benefits. But since the check is smaller, so too is the 20 percent threshold. “So it’s not like I can even make up the income anywhere else—I can’t,” she said.