The $85 billion in automatic cuts working their way through the federal budget spare many programs that aid the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program and food stamps.
But the sequestration cuts, as they are called, still contain billions of dollars in mandatory budget reductions in programs that help low-income Americans, including one that gives vouchers for housing to the poor and disabled and another that provides fortified baby formula to the children of poor women.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers largely resigned themselves to allowing sequestration — a policy meant to force them to the negotiating table, not to actually reduce the deficit — to take wider effect after it started on Friday. That leaves agencies just seven months to carry out their cuts before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. In many cases, they will eventually have to deny aid to eligible needy families.
Unless a deal is reached to change the course of the cuts, housing programs would be hit particularly hard, with about 125,000 individuals and families put at risk of becoming homeless, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated. An additional 100,000 formerly homeless people might be removed from emergency shelters or other housing arrangements because of the cuts, the agency said.
Local administrators are trying to decide how to put the mandatory 5.1 percent budget cuts into effect by the end of September. Adrianne Todman, the executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority, said that no person in her program currently using a housing voucher or living in a public facility would be affected or put out on the street.
But to absorb the cuts, Ms. Todman plans to defer maintenance and leave staff vacancies open. She may also not be able to fill open public housing units as tenants vacate them. And she may stop rolling over housing vouchers to families on the waiting list. Eventually, she said, she may have to furlough employees.
“It’s a shame. It’s more than a shame, it’s despicable,” Ms. Todman said, noting that her agency already lacked enough capacity to meet the district’s needs. “These are real families that we have deemed eligible and are waiting to receive their voucher from us.”
In Washington and across the country, families and individuals generally need to have very low incomes to be eligible for federal assistance. Public housing residents in Washington have an average annual income of just $12,911. More than 40 percent are either children or the elderly, and more than a quarter live with a disability. In the voucher program, the annual income is even lower, just over $10,000 a year, and similarly large proportions of residents are elderly, disabled or young.
“These people are very, very, very poor,” said Sheila Crowley, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, speaking of recipients of federal housing support across the country. “They don’t have resources to fall back on.”
In some places, officials have already started carrying out cuts. For instance, King County in Washington State, which includes Seattle, stopped issuing new housing vouchers on Friday.
“Sequestration will result in some 600 fewer families in our local communities receiving crucial rental assistance over the next year,” Stephen Norman, the executive director of the county housing authority, said in a statement. “Because rents are so high, many of these families may, quite literally, find themselves out on the street.”
Members of Congress have indicated that they might give agencies more discretion in fulfilling the cuts, to help blunt their impact. But policy experts said that in the case of many low-income programs, budget cuts would necessarily mean fewer people get help.
“There’s no loose change in the cushions,” Ms. Crowley said. “Anything you take out of HUD is going to reduce services and cut programs. There’s just no fat there. There hasn’t been for a long time.”
Other programs that assist low-income families face similarly significant cuts, including one that delivers hot meals to the elderly and another that helps pregnant women. Policy experts are particularly concerned about cuts to the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, which provides food and baby formula for at-risk families.
It is considered one of the most effective social programs in government, reducing anemia and increasing birth weights. But up to 775,000 low-income women and their children might lose access to or be denied that aid because of the mandatory cuts, according to calculations by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group.
The start of sequestration, a policy never meant to take effect, has left both sides seeking cover, with many Democrats dramatizing the impact of the cuts and many Republicans playing them down.
Some Republicans, in fact, have said that whatever the effect, the cuts are a necessary part of reversing the trend of the government spending more and taking on more debt.
“President Obama proclaimed that the sequester’s ‘brutal’ and ‘severe’ cuts will ‘eviscerate’ America’s domestic spending,” Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, wrote in a recent article published by Investors.com. “But ‘eviscerate’ is not the adjective I would use; in fact, I believe the sequester is a pittance.”
The $85 billion in cuts is just a small part of the $3.6 trillion annual budget, but policy experts say that even those cuts that are being applied to programs that do not specifically focus on low-income people and communities will disproportionately affect them.
Other cuts might not hit low-income Americans specifically, but their impact could affect vulnerable families disproportionately. Those include cuts to programs that aid children with special needs; job-training programs that help unemployed people find a new career; foreclosure prevention services; and programs that help 150,000 veterans every year make the transition into the nonmilitary work force.
They also include a reduction in jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. Those out of work for more than six months could see their checks shrink by as much as 11 percent.
The Budget Control Act, a 2011 law that created the automatic cuts, exempted “mandatory” spending programs that aid low-income Americans, like Medicaid, which receive automatic federal financing. But it did not exempt “discretionary” programs, whose financing Congress determines in its annual appropriations process.