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Sequestration: What Do the Automatic Spending Cuts Mean for the Poor, Unemployed and Children?

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The word of the month in Washington is “sequestration,” or the automatic $85 billion in spending cuts slated to take effect on March 1 unless Congress reaches a deal. What will those cuts mean in real life for the poor, unemployed, sick and children? Reporter Imara Jones of ColorLines.com joins us to discuss how the damage will stretch far beyond jobs, forcing a dramatic pullback in critical areas like health, education, housing and food security, especially in already vulnerable and marginalized communities. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the showdown on Capitol Hill over the $85 billion budget cuts scheduled to take effect on March 1st. The White House and independent analysts fear the so-called “sequester” could jeopardize hundreds of thousands of jobs.

On Tuesday, President Obama held a public event with a group of firefighters and police officers to pressure Republicans to negotiate an agreement to divert the cuts. Obama wants Republicans to end tax breaks, mostly for the wealthy, but it’s uncertain Republicans will concede. Obama warned the cuts threaten to wreak major economic damage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy. They will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls. So, now Republicans in Congress face a simple choice: Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investments in education and healthcare and national security, and all the jobs that depend on them, or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special-interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations? That’s the choice.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the economic group Macroeconomic Advisers predicted the sequester will slow economic growth by more than half a percentage point and result in the loss of 700,000 jobs. And a new article by ColorLines notes the damage will stretch far beyond jobs. The article is called “What’s 'Sequestration' Mean in Real Life?” and it details how the spending cuts will force a dramatic pullback in critical areas like health, education, housing and food security, especially in already vulnerable and marginalized communities.

For more, we’re joined by the author of the piece, Imara Jones. He is the economic justice contributor for ColorLines.com. He served in the Clinton White House, where he worked on international trade policy.

Imara Jones, welcome to Democracy Now! First explain, for people who don’t understand this word, which is coming into the vocabulary with this meaning just recently—what does “sequestration” mean?

IMARA JONES: Yeah, it’s even hard to say. Thank you for having me.

Well, what it means is automatic, across-the-board cuts made in government spending. And as the president pointed out, they’re indiscriminate because they are across the board. And they are the result of compromises in Washington that couldn’t have been made in terms of finding a way to do our budget in such a way to get us to a long-term management of our debt without indiscriminate cuts. And so, that’s what sequestration is, and that’s what sequestration means.

And because of the way that the budget is set up, most of those cuts fall on areas that are called “discretionary spending,” because they’re not set by a formula with set revenues and set expenditures, like Social Security, Medicare and others. And those areas are the ones that target the programs that focus on economic opportunity, that help the working poor and that give average Americans a shot at making it in critical areas of, as you said, housing, food security, transportation, even unemployment insurance. And so, for communities of color and communities that have been hard hit by the recession, it’s a nuclear bomb that’s waiting to go off.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in—specifically, I think you mentioned as many as 185,000 people would lose Section 8 housing subsidy certificates. What are some of the other immediate effects of if this goes into—this happens starting March 1 or March 15th or in the next few weeks?

IMARA JONES: I mean, it reads like a laundry list, and we could take up the rest of the time going through the list. But some of the critical areas are: 125,000 people will lose Section 8 housing, which is critical housing support for the working poor; 100,000 people who are homeless will not receive the support that they need without a place to go; there won’t be 450,000 AIDS tests; something like 500,000 vaccines won’t be manufactured; a million people won’t be able to access community health centers; unemployment insurance for four million long-term unemployed will be cut by 10 percent; in terms of education, 70,000 kids won’t have access to Head Start; another 30,000 in terms of child care assistance. And then, if the sequestration goes on, because, you know, it’s a rolling—sort of a rolling storm, if it goes on through the summer and into the fall, the programs that support up to 20 million of the nation’s poorest students will be cut and are in jeopardy.

AMY GOODMAN: During an interview on Fox News on Sunday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested slashing healthcare to stop scheduled sequester cuts from, quote, “destroying the military.”

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The commander-in-chief thought—came up with the idea of sequestration, destroying the military and putting a lot of good programs at risk. Here’s my belief: Let’s take “Obamacare” and put it on the table. You can make $86,000 a year in income and still get a government subsidy under “Obamacare.” “Obamacare” is destroying healthcare in this country. People are leaving the private sector because their companies can’t afford to offer “Obamacare.” If you want to look at ways to find $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade, let’s look at “Obamacare.” Let’s don’t destroy the military and just cut blindly across the board.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox. Your response?

IMARA JONES: Well, the premise is wrong, and this is one of the key problems with the approach in Washington. What the United States needs to do is figure out not how to cut, but how to spend. The only way that we are going to restore ourselves to economic health is by spending. The reality is that the United States government funds its level of activities at the same level of Mexico. The United States has the lowest level of taxation of any developed country in the world. And what that means is that we are underinvesting in infrastructure, we’re underinvesting in education, we’re underinvesting in the key things that fuel economic growth. And it’s showing up in living wages, and it’s showing up in terms of the long-term unemployed and all of the problems that knock on from that.

And so the conversation is wrong, and Lindsey Graham and his party just feed into that. And it’s worth noting that one of the ways that we got into sequestration was through an agreement between the White House and the Congress—not once, but twice. And so, the entire frame of the discussion in Washington is wrong. And the longer it goes on, the worse the American people will be, because it’s not what built this country. We funded investments. We believe in creating an economy that works for everyone. And until we spend at the level that’s necessary, that can’t happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the likelihood of a deal before March 1, when—

IMARA JONES: Highly doubtful, because both sides aren’t talking. They’re all preparing for the list of cuts and positioning for the public relations disaster afterwards. And the problem is that this is one of three crises that’s coming over the next six weeks for budget. So, there’s a possible government shutdown on March 27th. And then on May 1, the borrowing authority of the United States government runs out. That can shut down parts of the government, lead to a downgrade, and possibly default, depending on how it’s managed. And so, we’re in for a rough ride here. And the longer it goes on, the more entrenched both sides will be and the likelihood that everything will come off the rails.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Imara Jones, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Imara Jones writes for ColorLines , economic justice contributor at ColorLines.com. He served in the Clinton White House, where he worked on international trade policy. His piece, that we’ll link to at democracynow.org, “What’s 'Sequestration' Mean in Real Life?” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

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