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Activist Coalition Rallies to End Sequester, Pain Caused by Budget Cuts

Open Media Boston - by Tate Williams, May-18-13
BOSTON - Congressional gridlock and federal budget cuts all too often come across as a maddening string of abstract numbers, amid repeated news of failure to reach an agreement.

But for the people who rely on the affected programs—the disabled, seniors, the unemployed, the working poor—the across-the-board cuts implemented by the so-called sequester has been anything but abstract. It’s lost work, fewer days of childcare, even the threat of homelessness.

On Thursday, organizations and people directly affected by recent federal budget cuts rallied in Boston, both to put a face on the impact of the cutbacks, and to protest the sequester and deeper reductions to social services that loom in current talks in D.C.

“It’s important that everyone here understand that sequestration means cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, home services that people like myself need,” said Dennis Heaphy, of the Disability Policy Consortium. “It’s a complete absurdity for our government to think that this is actually going to result in anything positive. They need to get the courage to do what they have to do to protect the rights of people who have the greatest needs.”

The rally, which drew more than 100 outside the Tip O’Neill Federal Building, was sponsored by several labor, justice and community groups with a wide range of missions but all trying to make it clear that inaction in Congress—and the ongoing push from lawmakers like Rep. Paul Ryan to deepen cuts—causes real suffering. The organizers, led by the Budget for All Coalition, were also driving two main solutions to budget shortfalls: closing corporate tax loopholes and cutting Pentagon spending.

The sequester refers to a suite of far-reaching cuts to federal programs that resulted from the agonizing budget standoff in the summer of 2011. After the House of Representatives demanded spending cuts before it would approve the normally routine increase to the federal debt ceiling, Congress created a bipartisan committee to settle the matter.

Established as a set of automatic cuts if they did not act, the sequester was meant to be a painful consequence that would motivate the committee to make a deal. The idea was that more than $1 trillion in threatened cuts over nine years would be so distasteful to both sides of the aisle, they would have to come to an agreement. No such agreement happened.

The cuts are spread across defense and domestic spending, including a 2% cut in Medicare reimbursements, and reductions across all federal programs (you can see all of the cuts here). While a host of programs like Social Security that are considered mandatory are exempt, advocates say that most are experiencing indiscriminate cuts regardless of their importance. That means teachers, early education, Meals on Wheels, housing assistance, HIV treatment, even research and development, all feel the pain.

For example, Jen Springer, SEIU Local 888, said child care workers she represents with the early education program Head Start, just learned they had to pack up their classrooms nearly four weeks earlier than expected.

“Early education works, and it doesn’t benefits unions. It doesn’t benefit a select group of people. It benefits the whole of society when our kids get a head start, there’s no question,” she said.

And Robert Folan-Johnson of ACT UP addressed the harm he anticipates to HIV treatment, testing, and research for a potential cure.

“All these signs of hope are threatened by sequestration and all of the cutbacks,” he said. “Cuts in research and treatment access will turn the clock back and we’ll get a new explosive phase of the epidemic.”

And cuts to housing and medical assistance are particularly frustrating to Karen Carson, with Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants. Carson has cerebral palsy, but with the help of public assistance for housing and home care, she’s been able to continue working and living on her own. Now she finds herself laid off and facing cuts to that assistance.

“I went to college, I paid taxes, I got a job. I did things that you were supposed to do and I felt it was right and proper that I contributed as a citizen of the United States,” Carson said after the rally. “But this is the reward that I get, to worry about my health care? To worry about my housing? To be told there’s no job for you? How does that make sense?”

State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry and mayoral candidate and City Councilor Charles Yancey also made appearances at the rally to show support, despite the cuts being far afield from their influence.

“The sequester was never supposed to happen. It was supposed to be an incentive for members of the administration and Congress to negotiate for the public’s good,” Yancey said in an interview.

“Just by walking away and doing nothing, people are being hurt. I’m here to add my voice to all these other good folks who are saying that the federal government has to be more responsible.”