WASHINGTON – After months of unheeded warnings, it took Congress just five days once flight delays began to pass a budget fix ensuring a full slate of air traffic controllers were keeping their eyes on the skies.
And when the prospect of meat inspector furloughs threatened to disrupt the flow of chicken and steak to grocery stores, Capitol Hill promptly responded by moving money around to keep both the powerful meat lobby and the hungry public satiated.
But when it comes to programs for the less fortunate — such as rental assistance, Meals on Wheels and Head Start — Congress as a whole has shown little appetite for relieving the across-the-board “sequestration” budget cuts. And advocates for elderly, disabled and low-income Mainers say those populations are bearing a disproportionate share of the financial pain, largely out of view of the rest of the public.
“It is having a tremendous impact on people who need services,” said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, a nonprofit that represents the state’s five regional Agencies on Aging, which expect to lose $330,000 in federal funding through Sept. 30.
“These are services that help to keep people — the elderly and the disabled — living in their homes and in their communities rather than living in institutions, which are much more expensive,” Maurer said.
Congress and the White House developed the framework for “the sequester” two years ago in the belief that the mere threat of such indiscriminate cuts — $1.2 trillion spread over 10 years — would provide incentive to find a better path toward deficit reduction.
The gamble failed. But instead of a tidal wave of impacts, the effects have been trickling out.
Unlike the airline or meat-packing industries, advocates for the poor have made little headway persuading Congress to restore funding for programs that — wrong or right — often get dragged into political dogfights over social welfare policy.
“It’s just a shame that people are not listening,” said Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority. “It’s not that we’re not talking. They just aren’t listening.”
WAITING LISTS GROW LONGER
In Portland, Adelson said his agency expects to issue up to 100 fewer new Section 8 housing vouchers this year after losing between $900,000 and $1 million in federal support. The Portland Housing Authority plans to manage the loss by issuing fewer vouchers to new clients rather than eliminating any current clients.
“The demand is huge and the affordable housing problem is just getting worse,” said Adelson, who expects the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook to hit 2,200 by the end of the month. “People will have to wait longer, and they are already waiting long enough. We have people waiting since 2009.”
The Maine State Housing Authority, which administers rental assistance and housing programs for most communities in the state, lost $1.3 million and expects to issue 143 fewer Section 8 vouchers this year — a 30 percent reduction in the number of vouchers typically issued to new recipients in any given year. MaineHousing has a waiting list of roughly 7,000 individuals and households, with an average wait of five years, according to spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte.
The Lewiston Housing Authority has not issued vouchers to anyone on its roughly 1,000-household waiting list since last September and probably won’t for the rest of the year. At this point, executive director Jim Dowling expects the number of vouchers issued by his agency to shrink by 80 this year.
“We are watching the attrition levels closely and one of the critical questions is, given the economic times and the sort of benefits available to people, are we going to see the type of attrition rates that we have seen in the past?” Dowling said. “Or will people hold onto vouchers longer?”
Other programs serving the elderly and the disabled are taking hits as well.
Maine’s Agencies on Aging — which provide Meals on Wheels, outreach and educational programs largely to senior citizens — have made significant cuts to services as they brace for an anticipated $330,000 loss.
Hallowell-based Spectrum Generations, which serves central Maine, went from delivering meals twice a week to only once a week and began putting people on a waiting list for the first time.
Eastern Agency on Aging in Bangor, meanwhile, closed its office one day a week and sent employees home without pay to absorb its anticipated $77,000 share of the cuts. It had already dropped to once-a-week deliveries for Meals on Wheels, so scaling back more wasn’t an option.
“We have been cutting the nutritional program over the years because the demand is so great but there is so little money,” executive director Noelle Merrill said. “I couldn’t cut it again.”
Also, Merrill and staff at other agencies have been told that federal payments to states could be delayed until June, forcing her to once again seek a larger line of credit at the bank.
“It’s so bad that every year we are borrowing money to pay our expenses while we wait for (federal) money,” she said. “But this is even worse.”
The effects of the budget cuts on lower-income Americans have not gone unheeded in Washington.
President Obama and some lawmakers — primarily from the Democratic side of the aisle — often cite the impacts on Head Start, Meals on Wheels and housing assistance programs as they call for a more wholesale approach to “fixing the sequester” rather than case-by-case fixes like those for the FAA.
The president’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget would eliminate the across-the-board cuts, as would a more recent proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who proposed offsetting the cuts with money saved from the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Neither plan is expected to go far, however.
FEW QUICK FIXES AVAILABLE
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado have also been pushing a proposal that would give the White House more flexibility to work with Congress to approve targeted cuts.
“Our plan shows that it is possible to work together on a responsible, thoughtful plan to reduce our deficit, protect the jobs of hardworking Americans, and avoid mindless, meat-ax spending cuts that do not distinguish between vital programs and those that should be cut or eliminated,” Collins said in a statement issued immediately after the president signed the FAA bill.
But while some hope Congress’ prompt action on air traffic controllers means lawmakers are open to other exemptions, observers say there are relatively few quick fixes.
Congress did not give the FAA additional money, but instead directed the agency to tap into a pool of ready cash in its “capital improvement” fund to end the air traffic controller furloughs. But there is no such flexibility within the Department of Health and Human Services, noted Sharon Parrott, a vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.
One-third of the DHHS sequestration cuts come from three areas: Head Start, the National Institutes of Health and programs for the elderly such as Meals on Wheels. Reinstating cuts to those programs — without giving the department more money — would necessitate doubling cuts in other areas such as food safety and drug safety, HIV/AIDS programs and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Parrot wrote in a recent online column.
“The reality is that if we are going to address the sequestration cuts not only this year but also in the following eight years that sequestration is in place, Congress is going to have to take a broader view and address it more systematically than in a piecemeal fashion,” Parrott said in an interview.
That would involve a combination of targeted cuts and “new revenue” — code words in Washington for tax increases, elimination of tax deductions or other mechanisms to pump up the federal coffers.
“So we just don’t know whether Congress and the president will work together to come up with a better solution for deficit reduction,” Parrott said.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at:
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC