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With Sequester, Social Services Brace for Cuts

  • Adam Phillips

Commuters pass by a homeless person in Grand Central Terminal in New York, January 25, 2013. Sequestration could force deep cuts to social programs, including homeless services.

Commuters pass by a homeless person in Grand Central Terminal in New York, January 25, 2013. Sequestration could force deep cuts to social programs, including homeless services.

No one in New York City knows exactly how much local social services will be cut back due to the federal budget sequester which went into effect March 1.

However, as the federal cuts take effect over the coming months, budgets for many state, city and private social service agencies that help vulnerable populations will be impacted.

The sequester was designed by Congress to cut spending across nearly every area of the federal budget.

When it began to take effect last Friday, it sent state and city governments, which depend in part on federal funding, and private sector social service agencies that receive federal grants, scrambling for ways to make up a projected shortfall.

“It ain’t going to be good. That we know for sure,” says David Rivel of the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, which serves 30,000 New Yorkers every year with addiction counseling, homeless services, transportation for the developmentally disabled, mental health care and violence prevention education.

Rivel says many clients need help in more than one of these areas, and a stressor in one aspect of life may increase the need for help in another.

“There are many people who are leading lives on the edge and if you push in any one place in the system, you are going to have impacts in other places," he says. "So a modest impact in terms of a reduced housing allowance could throw a family into crisis; it could mean they are homeless; it could mean they have a greater demand for mental services. It could mean that instances of domestic violence which were under control, now come out again because people are stressed out from pressures in their life.”

United Neighborhood Houses of New York protesting budget cuts that affect disadvantaged children and Head Start school programs. The same services could also be hurt by the sequester. (United Neighborhood Houses of New York )

United Neighborhood Houses of New York protesting budget cuts that affect disadvantaged children and Head Start school programs. The same services could also be hurt by the sequester. (United Neighborhood Houses of New York )

Sequestration could also threaten funding for Head Start, a popular federal program which provides education programs for young children, ages three to five, living at or below the poverty line.

Cutbacks would be especially catastrophic for New York City children, according to Nancy Wackstein of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, an umbrella association for 38 community centers and social service agencies, especially since state and city education budgets have already been slashed drastically in recent years.

“I think everybody in the United States has a stake in whether our children do well in school," Wackstein says, "whether they are going to graduate from high school, whether they are going to be able to succeed in the global marketplace. And so what you are doing is cutting yourself off at the knees here.”

Wackstein also fears for New Yorkers who are depending on federal funds to recover from Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the low-lying coastal areas of the city last October where many low income families live.

“There is still recovery going on in many communities," she says. "People living in public housing were really hard hit here. There are a lot of people who were struggling before Sandy, Sandy made it worse and now, if programs and services get cut back even more, it will be even worse for them. So this couldn’t come at a worse time.”

Other federally funded programs which could be affected in New York include $1.5 million dollars in meal money for the elderly, $5.7 million for the prevention and treatment of substance addiction, and $12.9 million dollars to promote good water and air quality.

There are also an estimated 12,000 defense department workers in the New York area who may lose part of their income due to furloughs.

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