Inside Public Integrity

Published — October 3, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

That other crippling government problem


“It’s a slow-moving train wreck.” Not the government shutdown, nor the looming government default. Rather, the train wreck is the ongoing toll from sequestration. The across-the-board budget cuts continue to hobble scientific research, shrink Head Start and other anti-poverty programs, and squeeze communities from Alaska to Florida.

According to the Financial Times, initial warnings of catastrophic effects around the country from sequestration failed to materialize. The cuts themselves average about 5% for most programs and many have found ways to get by. But the FT did find that the effects are gradually becoming more and more pronounced.

Many communities “are starting to really feel it,” says Steve Bell, senior director of the economic policy project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the source for the train-wreck quote.

Sequestration Nation is the name of the excellent three-part series published this week by the Financial Times in collaboration with The Center for Public Integrity. This series examines the impact of the $1.2 trillion cutback over a decade that started to bite last March. The cutback precedes the current government shutdown and grew out of last year’s partisan political dysfunction and congressionally driven log jam.

If it remains in place, as now seems likely, the toll of sequestration will continue to mount as measured by a depleted federal workforce and reduced public services. If you want to gauge the expected impact in your community, check out the FT’s calculator, based on the Center’s analysis of census data and federal spending. This country-by-county analysis reveals that some of the hardest hit regions will be those that benefited from healthy levels of federal spending in recent years and weathered the recession better than the rest of the country.

For example, the cost of sequestration will be about $4,000 per inhabitant in Christian County, Ky. home of Fort Campbell. Los Alamos, N.M., site of a national nuclear weapons laboratory, will lose more than $6,000 per person. Meanwhile, the nation’s capital will lose about $4,500 per person, not counting the cost of the partial government closure. The new shutdown — coming on top of sequestration —will mean furloughs on top of previous furloughs for many hundreds of thousands of civilian federal employees.

Early childhood education is one of the areas that sequestration has hit the hardest. Head Start will lose some 57,000 students this year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Damage to Head Start can have extended consequences, because the program has been shown to produce long-term benefits, such as enhanced earnings and increased employment when students can begin school prepared to be successful.

In short, as the FT series and the Center’s data analysis make clear, sequestration has left people with less money to spend – and less sure of their economic future. And no matter how long the current government shutdown continues, sequestration seems likely to keep rolling through the government workforce, from agriculture to energy and environmental protection to research grants, contributing to a weakened economy and a spending squeeze that could last for years.

Until next week,

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