In March, as the sweeping $85 billion reductions known as sequestration kicked in, President Barack Obama called them “stupid” and “arbitrary” and said they could thwart economic progress. Opponents said the administration was using scare tactics, predicting doom even though the cuts amounted to a tiny slice of the federal budget.
Public opinion is divided: Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News-Washington Post poll in May disapproved of the cuts, but far fewer — 37 percent — reported they’d been personally hurt. Still, that was up from 25 percent in March. Support varies by income, according to the poll; it’s highest for those with incomes of $100,000 or more.
More than three months into the sequester, it’s far too soon to measure the full impact of the start of a 10-year budget-cutting plan that was supposed to be so undesirable that it would force both sides on Capitol Hill to come up with something better. That didn’t happen.
Many more furloughs are planned. Bills have been introduced to spare certain people, such as cancer patients, from the cuts’ effects. Others have been exempted. Congress, for example, passed a measure putting air traffic controllers back to work after flights were delayed around the country.
But there is pain and anxiety, too, notably among the poor, the elderly and the sick — and social service agencies that serve them. Here are couple of their stories:
Rita Nahta’s first hint that something was awry was when the research scientist at the Emory University School of Medicine opened her email several weeks ago. She noticed something different about her federal grant for breast cancer studies: It was for three months.
Not a year’s allotment as she was accustomed to — about $208,000 — but just a quarter of that.
The National Institutes of Health overall budget has shrunk by about $1.6 billion because of the sequester, and Nahta, an assistant professor of pharmacology, hematology and oncology at the Atlanta school, says she doesn’t know when, or if, there will be another check.
“At times, it’s almost overwhelmingly stressful,” she says. “It’s difficult to plan ahead. I have to be really careful about using the money. ... There’s a term ‘high risk, high reward’ research.’ You want to make significant contributions and that takes risks. But you don’t want to do that when you’re not sure how much money you have.”
Nahta and her five trainees have found ways to stretch their dollars, reusing certain chemicals, buying supplies in bulk and pooling resources with other labs at the university. She refuses to dwell on any possible hardships. “I don’t want to stir fear in people. .... I’m trying to stay optimistic,” she says. “That’s what my lab picks up.”
Still, she can’t hide her frustration. “I’m concerned,” she says, “our scientific programs will be undermined and that will set us back as a country,” delaying important discoveries.
Nahta, a breast cancer researcher since 1995, andhas been receiving NIH grants for the past seven years. She studies how drug resistance develops in breast cancer cells, work she says is critical for developing medicines to combat the disease.
She’s continuing to work hard while looking for alternative sources of public and private funding and wondering about the next check.
“It puts that extra bit of fear and drive and uncertainty into everything,” she says.
When the budget was cut for Steve Nolder’s public defender office, he knew someone had to go.
As chief federal defender for the southern district of Ohio, Nolder had to find a way to slash 11 percent from the budget. He didn’t believe in going the last-hired, first-fired route, not when he’d recruited lawyers who’d uprooted themselves to join his office.
“I just didn’t think it was fair for me to change the rules based on the fact that they trusted me to come and work here,” he says. “Could I look at people who had been loyal to me over the years and eliminate them without any justifiable reason that was within their control? ... I certainly never took this job to ruin people’s lives and I wasn’t going to do that.”
So he did what seemed most logical: He fired himself.
Nolder figured his 26 years of experience would give him the best opportunities for a career in private practice. “Sure, there’s a school of thought that maybe you should go down with the ship,” he says. “I’m hoping that by leaving, the ship doesn’t go down.”
Nolder is among 12 lawyers who handle about 1,200 to 1,250 cases a year in the district covering Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. They’re so busy, he says, they could use another two attorneys.
Nolder’s 18-year career as a public defender will be over at the end of June, and that’s been agonizing.
“It’s like dying a slow death,” he says. “I love it here. It’s the best way to practice law, period, end of discussion.”
He says he’ll be fine but doubts his departure will really save money.
“If people are concerned about fiscal responsibility, this is anything but,” he says. “The cases don’t go away, the representation doesn’t go away. You just have to have others provide it.”
Private, court-appointed attorneys — generally paid $125 an hour — will likely take up the slack for cases his office can’t handle, says Nolder. And he could be one of them.
“That,” he says, “is the ultimate irony.”