Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
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Sequester cuts have impacted poor, elderly and cancer patients

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The first warnings about the spending cuts were dire.

In March, as the sweeping $85 billion reductions known as sequestration kicked in, President Barack Obama called them “stupid” and “arbitrary” and said they could thwart economic progress. Opponents said the administration was using scare tactics, predicting doom even though the cuts amounted to a tiny slice of the federal budget.

Public opinion is divided: Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News-Washington Post poll in May disapproved of the cuts, but far fewer — 37 percent — reported they’d been personally hurt. Still, that was up from 25 percent in March. Support varies by income, according to the poll; it’s highest for those with incomes of $100,000 or more.

More than three months into the sequester, it’s far too soon to measure the full impact of the start of a 10-year budget-cutting plan that was supposed to be so undesirable that it would force both sides on Capitol Hill to come up with something better. That didn’t happen.

Many more furloughs are planned. Bills have been introduced to spare certain people, such as cancer patients, from the cuts’ effects. Others have been exempted. Congress, for example, passed a measure putting air traffic controllers back to work after flights were delayed around the country.

But there is pain and anxiety, too, notably among the poor, the elderly and the sick — and social service agencies that serve them. Here are some of their stories:

Jessica Harrell had to reassure her 4-year-old daughter she hadn’t been thrown out of school when her Head Start classroom in Kentucky was shut down.

Nationally, Head Start, which serves nearly a million children of low-income families, had to slice 5 percent off its $8.1 billion budget. Some chapters have eliminated classes, scaled back transportation or shortened their school year.

When the Head Start program for 16 counties in western Kentucky lost about $750,000 in funding, it laid off about 50 people, mostly teachers, and reduced its roster by more than 160 children, according to Aubrey Nehring, chief executive officer of Audubon Area Community Services in Owensboro, Ky. Three centers were closed entirely.

What’s especially difficult, he says, is that about 75 percent of these Head Start parents were working or in school. “They cannot afford child care and still work,” Nehring explains. “Most have minimal family support. That’s the saddest part of the story. You have families making real progress climbing out of poverty, then you come and take that opportunity away from them.”

Harrell, 26, waited months to get her daughter, Vamira, into Head Start. She’d drop her off before heading to a paralegal job, then pick her up after work (she was laid off early this year). She noticed significant changes in her daughter. “She can count better, she knows her alphabet, she knows different animals,” Harrell says. “She learned a whole lot there.”

When her daughter’s classroom was among a dozen eliminated, Harrell says, “it broke my heart,” even more so when her little girl asked, “Why did they kick me out?”

The letter from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity felt like a punch in the face to Charles Medler.

“You have exhausted your Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) Tier III benefits,” the letter read. No more were available.

The 57-year-old from Interlachen thought he had four more weeks of benefits coming. It was just $275 a week, but it made a huge difference.

“You plan, ‘Well, OK. We’re good for another month or month and a half. I still have a little more time left,’” Medler says. “And you start planning for that, and then all of a sudden, bang, the rug gets pulled out from underneath you?”

Tier III are federally funded benefits that start when a worker has exhausted 19 weeks of payments by the state. But while other states made the cuts by trimming the amount individuals receive, Florida’s solution was to lop off the last four weeks of benefits for up to 100,000 laid-off workers.

It was just the latest setback for Medler. In November 2011, he was laid off by Georgia-Pacific Wood Products after more than 30 years.

He took his pension early, which reduced his monthly payment from $1,000 to $627.

Medler says the loss of their middle-class lifestyle pushed his already emotionally fragile wife over the edge. Their divorce is all but final.

After having to let two cars go, he’s left with a 16-year-old minivan with about 150,000 miles on it. He has two mortgages on his home, totaling about $15,000 more than the current appraised value.

While handing out resumes and applying for jobs, Medler takes whatever odd jobs he can find. He’s dug ditches, mowed yards, raked leaves and fixed pipes. He also volunteers at food pantries and churches — partly to give back, but also in hopes that it might lead to a job.

Rita Nahta’s first hint that something was awry was when the research scientist at the Emory University School of Medicine opened her email several weeks ago.

She noticed something different about her federal grant for breast cancer studies: It was for three months.

Not a year’s allotment as she was accustomed to — about $208,000 — but just a quarter of that.

The National Institutes of Health overall budget has shrunk by about $1.6 billion because of the sequester, and Nahta, an assistant professor of pharmacology, hematology and oncology at the Atlanta school, says she doesn’t know when, or if, there will be another check.

“At times, it’s almost overwhelmingly stressful,” she says. “It’s difficult to plan ahead. I have to be really careful about using the money. ... There’s a term ‘high risk, high reward’ research.’ You want to make significant contributions and that takes risks. But you don’t want to do that when you’re not sure how much money you have.”

Nahta and her five trainees have found ways to stretch their dollars, reusing certain chemicals, buying supplies in bulk and pooling resources with other labs at the university. She refuses to dwell on any possible hardships. “I don’t want to stir fear in people. .... I’m trying to stay optimistic,” she says. “That’s what my lab picks up.”

Still, she can’t hide her frustration. “I’m concerned,” she says, “our scientific programs will be undermined and that will set us back as a country,” delaying important discoveries.

Nahta, a breast cancer researcher since 1995, has been receiving NIH grants for the past seven years. She studies how drug resistance develops in breast cancer cells, work she says is critical for developing medicines to combat the disease.

She’s continuing to work hard while looking for alternative sources of public and private funding and wondering about the next check.

“It puts that extra bit of fear and drive and uncertainty into everything,” she says.

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