Get back to work, Congress — balance the budget, solve the sequester
I wrote the following story for the June 6 Winters Express after spending an afternoon with Yolo Housing Executive Director Lisa Baker. As she told me about how the sequester-triggered budget cuts will affect people living in my community who rely on federal subsidies to keep modest, meager roofs over their heads, the magnitude of what lies ahead on the horizon seems to hover like the Death Star.
People in my community — about 150 families in all, representing hundreds of people, half of which are under the age of 18 — are heading toward a precipice. They’re about to fall into the chasm of extreme financial hardship at best (ironic given that all are, by definition, low income families) and homelessness at worst.
What happens when potentially 150 families go homeless in my little town? When children are attending school by day and sleeping in cars by night? What about when they’re hungry? Or cold? Or frightened? And that goes for their parents too.
The small town of Winters, California is but just one in Yolo County, which is but one county in California, which is but one of 50 states that all face the same cuts to federally subsidized housing. Do the math. We don’t need to go to the Third World — we already have homelessness, poverty and hunger right here in America. And possibly soon, right here in my little town.
Now, bear in mind that the cuts to the federal housing budget represent only 2% of the deficit. Similar cuts will take place to federal food programs (including WIC and senior feeding programs), Medicare, MediCal (or Medicaid in other states), national parks, the military and a host of other programs. We are facing an avalanche of social upheaval in the very near future if Congress doesn’t do what it must: Get back to work, pass a balanced budget, end the sequester, and spare the most needy citizens from going without the bare necessities in life.
The chain of society is only as strong as its weakest link. We should be reinforcing our weakest link — low-income families — not chipping away at it.
Contact your Congressional representative and express your outrage, and demand that s/he get back to work — or get fired.
The sequester story from the June 6 Winters Express is as follows:
Sequester hits home
◆ Automatic federal budget cuts may affect Winters families
By DEBRA DeANGELO
The word “sequester” seems to drift through average American awareness, but what does it really mean?
According to an official White House web page, “sequester” means automatic budget cuts resulting from a 2011 law, the Budget Control Act of 2011, passed by Congress stating that if Congress could not reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion, “arbitrary and across the board budget cuts” would be triggered in 2013. Although Congress has reduced the deficit by $2.5 trillion over the last couple years, the total still fell far short of its mark. On March 1, 2013, the sequestration trigger was pulled.
“The whole design of these arbitrary cuts was to make them so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and find a good compromise of sensible cuts as well as closing tax loopholes and so forth. And so this was all designed to say we can’t do these bad cuts; let’s do something smarter. That was the whole point of this so-called sequestration,” President Barack Obama is quoted as saying on the web page.
Some of the funding targeted for sequester cuts include $1.2 million for after school programs and more than $4 million for meals for sick and homebound seniors, as well as the elimination of teaching, police and firefighter jobs. Other federally funded programs that may be pinched by the sequester include Medicare, Head Start, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, special education, airport security, military operations and the defense budget.
According to economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University as quoted on the Washington Post website, the total number of job cuts is estimated to be 2.14 million. Of the 50 states, California and Virginia will be hit the hardest, with over 200,000 job losses each.
Included in those cuts is federally subsidized housing. Locally, this affects the 124 families at the local federally subsidized housing complex, El Rio Villa (Yolo Housing), as well as 12 Winters families that make use of federal vouchers to help cover their rent in privately owned homes. Countywide, there are 431 federally subsidized rental units.
Winters resident Lisa Baker is the executive director of Yolo Housing for the entire county. She has been tasked with trying to explain to affected residents what this will mean to them when expenses can no longer be juggled or cut and reserve funds have been exhausted, and the federal funding for housing for all of these families dries up — which she anticipates will happen in August.
In a preemptive move, Yolo Housing has already frozen its voucher program, and is not accepting new residents for vacancies at El Rio Villa, but it’s not enough. The cumulative result of cutting expenses, using reserve funds, and freezing the voucher program and housing applications will ultimately be ineffective. If a federal budget isn’t passed and the sequester ended, the bottom is about to drop out for housing for hundreds of people right here in Winters — half of which are under the age of 18.
Walking around the grounds of El Rio Villa, Baker is clearly proud of the improvements that have taken place there over the last several years, including the clearing of brush along Putah Creek, the improvements to the soccer field, and a new community garden where residents can grow their own food. There is also a community room, a computer lab, an on-site 4-H program, a children’s soccer league and a playground.
True, the buildings are old, but they’re well kept, and Baker says the people who live there are protective of their little pocket of the world. As if on cue, one of the residents pulls up in his car to question what these two strangers — Baker and the Express reporter — are doing wandering around the grounds.
“It’s okay,” she tells him. “I work for Yolo Housing.”
Besides pride in El Rio Villa, Baker is also clearly worried about what lies ahead on the horizon. She says despite Yolo Housing’s efforts to cut costs and stretch its funding, there won’t be enough money to subsidize housing for families by the end of this summer. She points out that this doesn’t only affect renters, it affects landlords as well because renters who lose their vouchers may not have enough money to cover their rent and will be forced to move, just like the tenants at El Rio Villa.
Baker notes that it isn’t a situation of the government simply cutting fat from the housing budget. In fact, Yolo Housing was given the “National High Performer” title for its fiscal efficiency — one of only two such housing programs given the designation nationwide. She notes, Yolo Housing already had dialed back its spending to its 2011-12 budget before the sequestration threat loomed near. That means that a system that’s already not wasting money must find more places to cut. Baker says the cutting actually began in January, and Yolo Housing braced itself for the end of its fiscal year, which falls June 30. On July 1, she says, more severe funding drops are expected.
“At some point, the rubber’s going to meet the road,” says Baker.
So far, she says, she has managed to stretch the funding, but the time has come to inform Yolo Housing’s residents about what they may be facing, and Baker has sent a letter to all of them explaining the situation. In the meantime, Baker and her staff are doing their best to make ends meet, but at some point, those ends won’t come together anymore. People will start to lose their housing, right here in Winters. And, Baker emphasizes, the vast majority of them are working families with children, veterans, seniors, and those with physical disabilities. Many of them work right here in the community, and their children attend Winters schools.
Moreover, this is just one town in one county, in one state, across the country, where the same scenario will play out in the thousands: Families, seniors, the disabled and various low-income residents will have the financial — and literal — rug pulled out from under them. Where will they go? No one has an answer for that.
When asked if subsidized housing will fall off a cliff in August, Baker says its much more grim than that.
“We already fell off the cliff. We just haven’t hit the ground,” she says.
Baker says she and her staff are already worried about the impending housing cuts.
“We are afraid. We’re the safety net for the community,” she says.
She adds that all these cuts in federally subsidized housing won’t solve the federal budget deficit. She says the entire national housing budget represents only two percent of the federal budget, and says it is “a misrepresentation that this will solve the budget problem.”
“I don’t think you can solve a budget crisis on two percent,” she says. “It’s like trying to balance a whale on a pin.”
The cut to federally subsidized housing is but a miniscule drop in the federal deficit bucket, but the effect at the end of the line — on actual families and residents — will be devastating. And the financial and human cost of all these people, nationwide, needing a place to live and foot to eat — that’s something that has not apparently been included in the cost-savings calculation. Factoring in that Yolo County has a higher unemployment rate than other areas of California, and the effects of federal sequestration may become painfully obvious right here in Winters — a “double whammy,” Baker says. And, she emphasizes, neither the residents nor the communities in which they live created this approaching crisis. It all comes down to Congress not doing its job.
“Congress should work together and pen a budget; to find a way to pass a budget. That’s their job. If I didn’t do my job, I wouldn’t be allowed to continue to serve people. Passing a budget is one of Congress’ main duties.”
Baker sums up the frustration felt by many who are facing budget cuts and layoffs in the workplace, particularly in human service agencies where dollars represent housing, food and healthcare.
“I could use a little less politics and a little more governance.”