Sequester Watch

House Republicans Demand Cuts for Wall Street Watchdogs in Budget Deal

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, where he vehemently rebuked conservative groups who oppose the pending bipartisan budget compromise struck by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Monday evening, in an attempt to avoid another government shutdown, House and Senate negotiators released a draft of a budget deal — the first detailed spending agreement since 2011.

But less than two weeks after outgoing Fed Chair Ben Bernanke said that “excessively tight” budgets were “counterproductive,” and had made the recovery “weaker than it otherwise would be,” the draft announced Monday maintains many of the cuts from the disastrous sequester deal.

The Guardian’s Dan Roberts reports that Republicans had backed off of their previous demand for deeper cuts to the food stamp program, settling instead for partially defunding Wall Street regulators. MORE

With Few Inspections, Fifteen Miners Died on the Job in the Past Three Months

Miners and a Hopkins County sheriff's deputy, right, guard the entrance to the Webster County Coal Dotiki Mine in Nebo, Ky. One miner died and another was missing after a roof collapse at an underground coal mine with a long history of safety problems, officials said.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

During the last three months of 2013, fifteen miners died on the job. Most were killed in electrical or powered haulage accidents; others fell from ladders or drowned in a dredge. The number of miner deaths has been steadily declining in recent years, a trend that continued throughout the first nine months of 2013, until the most recent uptick.

This can’t just be blamed on bad luck or bad weather, though ice can be dangerous. (By comparison, six miners died in the last quarter of 2012.) A recent audit of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) found that the agency can “only reach a fraction of the entities it regulates” and that it failed to target high-risk industries. OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program is designed for “worksites that show excellence in occupational safety and health,” but the audit found that 13 percent of participating companies had been cited for safety and health violations but were allowed to stay in the program.

Miners aren’t the only workers affected by these oversights. Three million people were injured on the job in 2012. There were a string of workplace accidents last year — two chemical plant explosions in Louisiana, a grain bin explosion in Indiana, a gas tank explosion in Florida. Last spring, 15 people were killed in the West Chemical and Fertilizer Plant explosion in West, Texas. Seven different agencies were tasked with inspecting the plant and two agencies were tasked with inspecting the plant for risks of explosion — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and OSHA. It turned out that OSHA had not inspected the plant since 1985 and DHS had never inspected it. (The plant was inspected in 2010 by the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which issued a fine of $10,100 for missing placards and “not having a security plan.”) The need for inspections might be less urgent if employees were able to report safety violations, but according to the Center for Effective Government, OSHA does not respond to worker complaints or protect them against retaliation from their employers. MORE

Study: Unemployment Benefits Don’t Discourage People from Finding Work

A new study shows that even generous unemployment benefits have zero impact on people’s drive to go out and find a job.

The multinational study, conducted by Jan Eichhorn, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh, and published in the October issue of Social Indicators Research ($$), discredits what many see as conventional wisdom. During a floor debate over extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona put it directly: “Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.”

Not so, Eichhorn reports. Although he found that the well-being of the unemployed varied dramatically from country to country according to various economic and demographic variables, the key finding was that the generosity of unemployment benefits had no effect at all on people’s drive to go out and try to find a job. “This means that claims about unemployment benefits resulting in complacent unemployed people who chose the situation and would be satisfied with it cannot be retained uncritically,” he wrote.

(Eichhorn used data from the European Values Study – a large-scale database of public opinion data tracking what Europeans believe about family life, work, religion and society – and paired it with economic data from the 15 core countries of the European Union and Norway. Most of the countries Eichhorn studied offer their citizens much more substantial benefits than Americans enjoy when they lose a job.) MORE

Will Congress Ever Grasp That The Debt Crisis Is Fake?

This post originally appeared at OtherWords.

As the American people tried to celebrate last year’s holiday season while mourning the loss of 26 lives in Newtown, Connecticut, Congress and the White House were duking it out over the “fiscal cliff.”

Our leaders reached a temporary solution on New Year’s Day that averted some of the self-imposed toxic mix of mandated tax increases and discretionary spending cuts that threatened to trigger a new recession. In the end, they couldn’t agree on a comprehensive deal, so the sequester went into effect two months later with relatively little fanfare.

We’re still living with those $80 billion across-the-board cuts, which slashed research spending, kicked nearly 60,000 kids out of Head Start and forced Meals on Wheels to provide less help for the elderly and others in need.

Now they’re at it again. After October’s government shutdown, a new congressional committee got a Friday, December 13 deadline to reach an agreement on a budget for the 2014 fiscal year — which began more than two months ago. Come January 15, federal spending authority will run out again and we could begin 2014 with another shutdown. MORE

Survey: 81 Percent of Universities Say Sequester Has Directly Affected Research Activities

This post first appeared in The Nation.

University of California, Berkeley. (Photo Credit: Flickr user brainchildvn)

According to a new survey released Monday, 81 percent of responding universities said that sequestration, the automatic federal budget cuts, have directly affected their research activities. More than half of universities said a decrease in new federal grant opportunities and the shrinking value of existing grants, has prompted them to reduce research-related positions and nearly a quarter of the institutions said they have laid off research employees as a result of the cuts.

“The survey shows that sequestration is already eroding America’s research capabilities at universities across the country,” the Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and The Science Coalition announced in a written statement.

(Graphic: Inside Higher Ed)

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block has been criticized in the past by student activists for doling out lavish salaries for high-profile hires amid tuition hikes, budget cuts and recession, but on Monday he stated that a $50 million loss to the university’s research funding could lead to a brain drain, top researchers leaving in a mass exodus.

US Honors Veterans with Stirring Speeches and Painful Austerity


The US has a rich tradition of putting our veterans on a pedestal, praising them as heroes, effusively thanking them for fighting to preserve our liberties and then turning our backs on them and completely ignoring their real-life problems.

This Veterans’ Day is no exception. Across the country, politicians are giving speeches about the importance of honoring our vets and parades are streaming through big cities and small towns alike. And while all of these celebrations are underway – while the bunting is up and the flags are flying – the cult of austerity that has Washington, DC — and half of our state houses — in its vise-like grip is kicking our veterans in the teeth.

Consider a few ways that’s happening…

Heath Care

According to Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post, about one-in-ten veterans are uninsured, a lower rate than the population as a whole because of the VA program but still a national disgrace. MORE

Suicide Rate Climbs in Kansas After Cuts in Mental Health Programs

This post first appeared in The Nation.

Caseworker Cheryl Boone helps a client with paperwork during a therapy session at the Johnson County Mental Health Center Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, in Shawnee, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment recently released a startling report (PDF)  showing a 30 percent increase in suicides from 2011. Nationwide, the number of deaths by suicide surpassed the number of deaths by motor vehicle accidents in 2009, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided data.

The Wichita Eagle reports that the largest increase in suicides in Kansas occurred among white males, who already were the segment of the population most likely to take their own lives. More than 80 percent of suicides in Kansas last year were men, like Scott Dennis, a 42-year-old fitness company owner.

Last year, Dennis was busy getting ready for an industry convention in Las Vegas.

Dennis had already paid for a $20,000 sponsored dinner, booked his flight, hotel and rental car and sent out some work e-mails.

He showered and shaved. He packed his bag.

“He wrote a note that said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’ and left his wallet and his watch on his desk, drove to Wal-Mart down the street and shot himself in the chest,” said Brook Phillips, a friend of Dennis for 35 years.

Nationally, the CDC reported a spike in suicide rates in 2010 among the middle-aged, a 28 percent rise overall, a 40 percent jump among white Americans, and among men in their 50s, suicides increased by more than 48 percent. Guns remained the leading method used in all suicides, followed by poisoning, overdoses, and suffocation.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC told PBS: “We don’t know what specifically is causing [the suicide spike], but the trend has been consistent, and if anything our numbers would underestimate the gravity of the problem.”

Frieden also commented that more people die from prescription opiates today than from heroin and cocaine combined, and called alcohol a “significant contributor to depression and to mental health problems.”

But many people consume opiates and alcohol to self-medicate, or to escape their dire economic circumstances. One popular theory floated to explain the suicide epidemic is that the recession has caused emotional trauma in individuals.

Pat Smith, the violence-prevention program coordinator for the Michigan Department of Community Health, told Huffington Post the recession may have pushed already troubled people over the edge. Being unable to find a job or settling for one with lower pay or prestige could add “that final weight to a whole chain of events,” she said.

There does appear to be a correlation between the recession and increasing suicide rates. For example, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increased by 36 percent in 2008, and another 15 percent in 2009.

Data compiled by The Wall Street Journal in late 2009 showed increases in several states. Of 19 states surveyed, 13 saw marginal increases in suicide rates. Tennessee had the highest rate of increase, with over 15 percent more suicides in 2008 than 2007. Across the 19 states, the average increase was 2.3 percent.

And as Huffington Post notes, this same trend was also seen during the Great Depression, when the suicide rate increased by 21 percent in the early 1930s (about 17 of every 100,000 people).

Even though there have been horrific stories in the news related to the nation’s poor mental health care of its citizens (Aaron Alexis’ attack in Washington’s Navy Yard and Miriam Carey’s murder by DC police,) officials seem determined to continue slashing funding. From 2009 to 2011, states cut mental budgets by a combined $4 billion, the largest single combined reduction to mental health spending since de-institutionalization in the 1970s.

In Chicago alone, state budget cuts combined with reductions in county and city mental health services led to shutting six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, Forbes reports.

Threats of sequestration in 2013 had a significant impact on people’s ability to access mental health services and programs, including children’s mental health services, suicide prevention programs, homeless outreach programs, substance abuse treatment programs, housing and employment assistance, health research, and virtually every type of public mental health support. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration(SAMHSA) claimed it alone would be cutting $168 million from its 2013 spending, including a reduction of $83.1 million in grants for substance abuse treatment programs.

Since 2009,  a community health centre in Sedgwick County, Kansas has lost 53 percent of its state funding, according to Marilyn Cook, executive director of Comcare of Sedwick County. She told The Wichita Eagle the county is trying to appeal to the state to replace some of that money.

“This is a community problem and a public health problem, not just a mental health problem,” Cook said. “Treatment dollars have gone down and more and more people are coming to us, a growing number without any other payment for services.”

She said they’ve seen an increase in the number of calls to the crisis program and more law enforcement officers have been trained in crisis intervention, which is a good thing, she said, but “without adequate funding, it’s difficult for us to get to everybody who needs care and help.”

In 2012, Sedgwick County 911 dispatch received more than 2,400 calls related to suicide threats or attempts and more than 61,000 crisis phone calls for suicide risk or urgent mental health help.

Liz McGinness, a member of the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition and a retired school psychologist and mental health cries team director for USD 259, says the suicides may be related to social stigmas and the economy.

“I think one of the biggest things we can rally around is reducing stigma and talking about getting help,” McGinness said. …
“There has been an uptick in suicides in middle-class, white professional men. … We do likely attribute that incidence as being related to the economy, for men particularly. So much of their identity is tied up in their job, and they lose their moorings.”

Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio and independent journalist who blogs at Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the LA Times, In These Times, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper the Indypendent.

How Furloughs Hurt the Most Vulnerable Soldiers

Pedestrians walk in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2013. The number of military suicides is nearly double that of a decade ago when the U.S. was just a year into the Afghan war and hadnít yet invaded Iraq. While the pace is down slightly this year, it remains worryingly high. The U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) acknowledge the grave difficulties facing active-duty and former members of the armed services who have been caught up in the more-than decade-long American involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Pedestrians walk in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2013. The number of military suicides is nearly double that of a decade ago when the U.S. was just a year into the Afghanistan war and hadn'­t yet invaded Iraq. While the pace is down slightly this year, it remains worryingly high. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps company commander in Anbar Province who later redeployed to Afghanistan with the State Department and resigned his post in protest over U.S. policy, believes that nothing has laid bare the priorities of our nation so clearly as the sequester.

“The most vulnerable are getting hurt, while the privileged, the well-to-do are being protected,” says Hoh, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. “We’re choosing to prioritize profits of corporations, or revitalize weapons systems that don’t matter any more, as opposed to making sure soldiers get the care they need when they come home.”

Hoh points to the fact that Department of Defense civilian health care workers were forced to reduce their hours by 20 percent until recently. While Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reduced the furlough days required for the remainder of the fiscal year ending September 30, he also said that he “cannot be sure what will happen” under sequestration for Fiscal Year 2014 which begins October 1. The Pentagon will be required to cut 40 percent more than the $37 billion that was mandated this year.

To Hoh, the reduction in furlough days comes much too late and the damage has already been done. MORE

What’s Happening with the Federal Budget and Debt Ceiling?

This piece first appeared on National Priorities’ blog.

After final vote were cast, members of Congress walk down the steps of the House of Representatives as they leave for a five-week recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. With few accomplishments in the divided 113th Congress, the next big battle is over the budget, the nation's debt limit and the possibility of at least a partial government shutdown. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

You’ve heard whispers. Perhaps here and there in the news there’s been mention, yet again, of the potential for a government shutdown. So here’s the update you need – in handy cheat-sheet format – of what’s happening with the federal budget.

Patching Together a Federal Budget

Right around now lawmakers are supposed to finish their work on appropriations bills to fund the federal government – everything from environmental protection to higher education to the military – for the start of fiscal year 2014 on Oct. 1, 2013. But Congress hasn’t made much progress on that. In part that’s because lawmakers failed their responsibility of agreeing on a budget resolution – a blueprint for the overall budget – which would have ensured that the House and Senate were using the same set of numbers to write appropriations bills. Instead, the two chambers passed wildly different budget resolutions back in March (we have all the details here). Since then, the House has succeeded at passing four of the necessary 12 appropriations bills, while the Senate has passed zero. MORE

Congress Misses Opportunity to Reverse Sequester Cuts to Housing

After final vote were cast, members of Congress walk down the steps of the House of Representatives as they leave for a five-week recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. With few accomplishments in the divided 113th Congress, the next big battle is over the budget, the nation's debt limit and the possibility of at least a partial government shutdown.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
After final vote were cast, members of Congress walk down the steps of the House of Representatives as they leave for a five-week recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In April, Doug Rice, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warned that sequestration would lead to the loss of rental assistance for up to 140,000 low-income families.

Last week, he held out a glimmer of hope that a bipartisan Senate appropriations bill would reverse those cuts.

According to Rice, the Senate transportation, housing and urban development (THUD) bill would restore funding for 99 percent of the Section 8 rental assistance vouchers in use prior to sequestration. Such legislation would be significant to say the least considering the state of affordable housing in America even prior to sequestration. MORE

Mapping the Sequester’s Impact on Low-Income Housing

In April, Doug Rice, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, released a paper that described some of the ways people would be affected by sequestration cuts to local housing agency budgets, including: up to 140,000 fewer low-income families receiving rental assistance vouchers, higher rent for people who can’t afford it, and a rise in homelessness.

“These kinds of cuts are really unprecedented,” said Rice, noting that this was just the third time in 39 years that Congress failed to sufficiently fund housing agencies so that they could renew all current vouchers.  “Here we are in 2013 looking at severe cuts in the number of families that receive assistance, even at a time when the number of families in need has been rising sharply.”

Rice said that most local housing agencies would likely “shelve” Section 8 rental assistance vouchers, meaning vouchers would no longer be reissued to families on waiting lists when current recipients leave the program.  He said that many people receiving new vouchers would have them rescinded as they searched for apartments.  Maintenance and inspection of units would be deferred, and affordable housing stock would be jeopardized.

All of this would occur despite the fact that there are waiting lists for vouchers in almost every community; half of the current households in the program include seniors or people with disabilities; and the average household income of a voucher recipient is just $12,500.  On top of that, only 1 in 4 eligible households actually receives a voucher or some other form of federal rental assistance.

A look at over sixty stories from across the country in the past few months reveals that Rice’s analysis was spot-on. Mouse over each location to read the headlines. MORE

Hunger and the Sequester, By the Numbers

Sequestration cuts will total $1.2 trillion through fiscal year 2021. This year there is a 5.3 percent cut, totaling $85 billion. The cuts are indiscriminate and will impact nearly every federal program.* Here are some of the ways this year’s cut is affecting food and hunger programs, in America and abroad.

Domestic Programs

Marty Robertson unpacks food from the Chagrin Falls Meals on Wheels program for recipient Bernadette Winko, 90, in her Bentleyville, Ohio home on Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Meals for needy seniors lost in programs like Meals on Wheels (MOW): 4 million

Savings from cut of 4 million meals: $10 million

Rise in Medicaid costs due to cut of 4 million meals: $489 million

Net cost to U.S. federal budget due to cut of 4 million meals: $479 million MORE

The Older Americans Act and U.S. Seniors

We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

Social worker Roberta Marzano with Caring People Alliance speaks with seniors at the Fels South Philadelphia Community Center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009. In light of Pennsylvania's six-week-old budget stalemate, Arlene Bell, the president and CEO of Caring People Alliance told her several hundred employees that this Friday's payroll would be slashed by more than half to keep the 77-year-old nonprofit's doors open to the children and elderly it serves. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A social worker speaks with seniors at the Fels South Philadelphia Community Center in Philadelphia in 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Honoring our grandparents, our elders — in these divisive times, at least we hold this value in common, right?

As children, we dutifully sat through long visits or lectures from older relatives, teachers, neighbors or family friends; and then wised up to learn that some of these relationships would prove to be our most enduring.

It’s enough to make you think that maybe — just maybe — this shared experience would lead to a steadfast commitment from policymakers to ensure that those who cared for us, fought for us and raised us are able to meet their basic needs.

But if you attended Senator Bernie Sanders’s hearing on reducing senior poverty and hunger through the Older Americans Act (OAA) on Wednesday, you were in for a rude awakening. MORE

Congress Turns Its Back on Rural America

For fifteen years in Neodesha, Kansas (population 2,486) there were only two options for early childhood education services in town: a program for at-risk 4-year-olds operated by the school district, and a Head Start Center for children ages 0 through 5 run by the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program (SEK-CAP).

SEK-CAP offers a range of services to twelve counties, responding to the housing, utilities, transportation, employment, medical care, child care, education and nutrition needs of low-income people in southeast Kansas. The counties have a combined population of approximately 192,000 people and the child poverty rate is nearly 26 percent — an increase of 13 percent in the past year. The past three years have also seen a rise in unemployment, food and housing insecurity, as well as agricultural and natural disasters.

Due to sequester cuts, SEK-CAP decided in May that it could no longer afford to operate the Head Start Center in Neodesha, which served 17 children and their families, and employed five staff members. The rental and maintenance costs of the building made this closure the obvious choice for the agency to find the savings forced upon it by Congress.

Becky Gray, director of research and planning for SEK-CAP, said the affect of the cuts is far more significant than “it might appear on paper.” MORE

Denying a Head Start in Washington State

A student in Washington State's Head Start program practices her writing. Courtesy of Washington Head Start.

To get a sense of just how foolish and shortsighted the $85 billion across-the-board sequester cuts are you don’t have to look any further than Head Start. The federal government’s only pre-K program, Head Start provides comprehensive, high-quality early education and support services to children and their families living in poverty.

“The results speak for themselves,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP (WSA). “The research shows that kids who go through Head Start are more likely to be ready for kindergarten, less likely to need special education services and more likely to graduate from high school.”

All of that adds up to saving money over the long haul. But even before the sequester Head Start was reaching less than half of eligible children in the United States — and only 38 percent in Washington. Now, even fewer children will benefit from the program. MORE

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