Overcoming the Sequester Pain – Not Much Hope from Capitol Hill

Left Margin

By Carl Bloice – BC Editorial Board
Black Commentator
July 25, 2013 – Issue 526

http://www.blackcommentator.com/526/526_lm_sequester.php

There is a chance that some of the most horrendous effects of the sequester deal between the Congress and the White House could be considerably alleviated by legislation now before the Senate. However, the likelihood of that happening is scant, given the heartless political Neanderthals in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

“As early as next week, the House and Senate will consider separate bills to fund the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for fiscal year 2014,” Douglas Rice of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), wrote July 19. “The stark differences between the two bills reflect the radically different budget priorities set by the budget resolutions that the chambers approved earlier this year. These differences will have to be resolved over the next several months, and low-income families needing housing assistance – who have been hit hard by the across-the-board sequestration cuts that took effect in March – have a lot at stake in the outcome.”

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, the outrageous sequester deal is already causing havoc with the lives of low income working people who currently receive rental payment assistance through the rent vouchers program. If nothing is done to reverse it the problem will only get worse, eliminating future vouchers and pushing more impoverished people into the streets.

“Facing the deepest voucher renewal funding shortfall on record, many state and local housing agencies have stopped reissuing vouchers to families on waiting lists when current voucher-holders leave the program, and many others are likely to follow suit in coming months,” wrote Rice, adding that “If sequestration continues into 2014, moreover, and Congress provides voucher renewal funding in 2014 at the 2013 post-sequestration level, housing vouchers for thousands of additional low-income families will be eliminated.”

“These cuts fall heavily on vulnerable people,” continued Rice. “Half of the families with vouchers are seniors or people with disabilities, and most of the rest are families with children. These households typically have incomes well below the poverty line and cannot afford decent housing without assistance. Some who will go without assistance will face extreme hardship, such as having to live in emergency shelters.”

Proposed Senate legislation would restore for the 2014 fiscal year federal housing grants eliminated by the sequester. It would restore most of the HUD vouchers currently being eliminated Legislation before the House, however, would reduce funding for housing and community development programs by nearly $1 billion below the budget level the sequestration mandates for this year.

“In addition to sequestration’s cuts in housing vouchers, the consequences of its cuts in other housing assistance programs and in community development funding – which come on top of other deep cuts in these areas in 2011 and 2012 – will magnify over time,” says the CBPP “For instance, sequestration cut funding for Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG), which help communities provide emergency shelters and short-term assistance to prevent homelessness, by 25 percent in 2013. The combined effect of funding cuts for both vouchers and ESG likely will be that more individuals and families ultimately become homeless and remain homeless for longer periods of time.”

The CBPP says the Senate bill “would return funding for most other HUD housing and community development programs to at least 2013 pre-sequestration levels. In contrast, the House bill would slash Community Development Block Grant funding by $1.4 billion – or 47 percent – below the 2013 post-sequestration level, reducing funding to its lowest nominal level since Congress created the program in 1974.”

And this, the CBPP says, “will contribute to further losses of public housing; impede the development of affordable housing for seniors, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable families; and undercut efforts to redevelop and revitalize low-income neighborhoods.”

“While the Senate bill would reverse much of the harm to low-income families caused by sequestration, it remains frugal,” says the CBPP. “Funding for most HUD programs would remain far below 2010 levels, adjusted for inflation (see Figure 2 below), even though the need for rental assistance has grown substantially. The number of renters with ‘worst-case housing needs’ – those whose incomes are below 50 percent of the local median and who pay more than half their income for housing or live in severely substandard housing – has risen by 43 percent since 2007. This has contributed to homelessness remaining a large, persistent problem.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is to be commended for keeping tabs on the effects of the sequester on important social welfare programs. Especially in the face of effort by some in the major mass media – like the Washington Post – to downplay or discount the savagery of the cuts instituted and the pain inflicted upon so many individuals and families. In fact, while there were omens of things to come reported in the spring, the on-the-ground results of the sequester have pretty much disappeared from newspaper pages and the airwaves.

A cruel irony of all this – and all austerity moves being unrolled in Washington – is that the cutbacks are coming at a time of growing need.

Back on November 21, 2012, Will Fischer, another policy analyst at the CBPP noted that the number of low-income families struggling to afford housing has “grown dramatically in recent years” according HUD data. [Chart] “That’s one reason why so many poor children live in households that face major hardships such as falling behind on the rent or mortgage, as my colleague Arloc Sherman recently noted,” he noted.

Fischer wrote that “About 8.5 million households with very low incomes faced ‘worst case housing needs” last year, meaning that they had no housing assistance and either paid more than half of their income for rent and utilities or lived in severely substandard housing. That’s 2.6 million (43 percent) more households than in 2007.

“Families that pay large shares of their income for rent are much more likely to move frequently or go through periods of homelessness – experiences that can seriously harm children’s health and development.”

On March 6, New York Times columnist, Charles M. Blow, noted that “since the country didn’t fall apart during the first week of the sequester, many Americans may be even more open to the argument that the administration was crying wolf. In fact, the Dow Jones industrial average hit a record high this week, and there were no long lines at airports for any reason other than a brewing snowstorm.”
“But remember that in the story of the boy who cried wolf, ultimately, a real wolf does show up after all the false cries, and that very real wolf destroys a vulnerable flock.”

Blow continued, “The pain of the sequester is that kind that lurks: a slow, creeping disaster mainly affecting those Americans on the fringes who are barely inching their way back into a still-bleak job market – or hopelessly locked out of it – and poor Americans too old or too young to participate in it.”

“Housing vouchers are an essential tool to prevent homelessness and help families in emergency shelters and other types of temporary housing move into stable, permanent housing, the CBPP’s Rice observed. “Indeed, many communities prioritize homeless individuals and families for receipt of vouchers. As agencies stop reissuing vouchers in response to sequestration, the number of vouchers available to families that are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness will shrink markedly, lengthening the time that families remain homeless (and causing other homeless families to be turned away from emergency shelters because they are full).”

The measure before the Senate would not solve the nation’s affordable housing crisis. It would hardly make a dent in it. But it would alleviate some of the dreadful effects of the irresponsible wheeling and dealing between the Obama Administration and the Republican Congressional leadership. But don’t expect much understanding of this from the knuckleheads in the House leadership beholden as they are to their rightwing supporters and their reactionary corporate backers. Absent effective protest and resistance they will continue to cut deeper and deeper into the living standards and well-being of the country’s working families and the poor.
___________________

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Bloice is one of the moderators of Portside. Other Carl Bloice writing can be found at leftmargin.wordpress.com

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