The Sequester is here… How will it affect you?

Raymond Wyrick, pictured, will lose his job working on Humvees for the Army next week due to forced federal budget cuts. Image from CNN.

Raymond Wyrick, pictured, will lose his job working on Humvees for the Army next week due to forced federal budget cuts. Image from CNN.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) was right. He predicted that a series of automatic spending cuts known in Washington, D.C. as “the sequester” would take effect as scheduled on March 1. Today is March 1st, and rather than coming up with a last-minute deal as they had during the fiscal cliff debates, Congress has taken the day off.

As a result, President Obama must, by law, announce $85 billion in federal spending cuts by midnight. These cuts are to be implemented over the course of the next six months, from today until September 30. Already, federal employees have been notified that they will be furloughed – forced to take unpaid time off of work – for two weeks in the coming months. In addition, 46,000 contract workers who are doing work for the federal government will lose their contracts and be out of work.

The Department of Defense has to find ways to trim its budget by 13%. The Department of Homeland Security is releasing 5,000 illegal immigrants from its jails to save money. The Coast Guard is soon to see reduced patrols and resources as well.

But how will the ordinary American be affected by the sequester? Here are a few things that are in store:

  • More expensive groceries. Meat, by law, has to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure it is safe. However, the sequester will mean fewer meat inspectors, which means less meat will be processed, which means the price of meat will go up at your local grocery store. Also, there could be a higher risk of getting food poisoning, which is a problem because…
  • Rising health care costs. As you probably know, Medicare helps senior citizens pay for medical care. What is less well-known is that doctors and hospitals are required, by law, to take whatever money Medicare offers. So when the sequester cuts payments to hospitals and doctors by about 2%, there is nothing they can do about it – they have to eat those losses. The only thing they can do is raise everyone else’s prices to compensate.
  • Less help for low-income mothers. WIC, a program run by the Department of Education to help low-income mothers provide their children with healthy food, will have to drop 300,000 mothers from their enrollment.
  • Less federal money for education. The sequester will boot as many as 70,000 children from Head Start, a federally-funded preschool program for low-income families. It will also reduce the federal money that helps schools meet the needs of special-education children.
  • Fewer unemployment benefits. America’s unemployed may soon find their checks from the federal government have dropped by as much as 10%. Plus, returning veterans will see their job counseling cut.
  • Trouble at the National Parks. Although no specific measures have been announced yet, the National Park Service may be forced to have fewer rangers and close some campgrounds.
  • Trouble for America’s fishermen. The NOAA may have to delay the opening of fishing seasons in Alaska and on the West Coast, as reduced staff makes it harder to assess the health of fish stocks.
  • Less international trade. Furloughs in the US Customs and Border Inspection will mean longer waits to enter and leave the United States. For a cargo ship full of perishable goods, a long wait could mean lost product.
  • Longer waits at the airport. This one is going to affect me personally, as I’m going to be flying to a family reunion in April. Fewer air traffic controllers, fewer TSA and security inspectors, and fewer operating runways will  lead to longer lines and more delays and cancellations.

These measures will not all hit right away. Most of them will be phased in gradually, with the real impact on a day-to-day basis starting in April.

Scary as these might seem, this graphic from the American Action Forum points out just how little of the overall federal budget is actually being cut:

Sequester Perspective image from The American Action Forum

The “sequester” was created in 2011, as part of a hard-fought battle over the debt ceiling. It was never meant to be carried out. Rather, it was meant as a ticking time-bomb to which both Democrats and Republicans would be chained, forcing them to work together to defuse it. It was assumed that, since neither party liked most of the budget cut proposals put into the plan, they would simply have to come up with a new plan to replace it. Instead, both parties decided to let the bomb go off, and blame each other for the result.

Democrats say that Republicans refuse to consider closing tax loopholes to fix the budget deficit, while Republicans say that Democrats have refused to consider reforming Social Security or Medicare, the most expensive part of the national budget. The deadline for the sequester was postponed in the fiscal cliff negotiations at the beginning of the year, but still no deal was reached. Indeed, some conservative voices – like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – took the attitude that bad cuts were better than no cuts. “It’s absurd to think that the government cannot get by with a little more than a 2 percent reduction in spending when every working American had to figure out how to make do with 2 percent less in their paychecks just last month,” McConnell said.

So, now, these forced budget cuts are set to take money away from defense, Medicare, and government services, although Congressional pay and staff will not be affected.

As of yet, nobody can say just how big of an impact on the overall American economy the sequester will ultimately have. There are just too many unknowns to make an accurate assessment. What can be said right away, though, is that polls are showing people are “burned out” from hearing about political gridlock and economic crisis. Only one in four polled by the Washington Post and Pew Research Center said they were closely following news and developments about the sequester. One commenter on CNN’s Facebook page said, “Confused and feeling insignificant,” while another lamented, “I have just about given up. Right now, I agree more with the pope for resigning when he has the capacity to do so under no duress.”

Information from CNN, MSN News, Fox News and the Washington Post.