Rhode Island Will Soon Feel Effects of Sequestration Cuts

Apr 1, 2013

It’s been a month since the so-called “sequestration” cuts went into effect, the $85 billion in slashed federal spending for the rest of 2013.  Although the Defense Department will shoulder half the cuts, the Rhode Island National Guard says it has heard of no immediate changes. But the hammer’s coming down on social service programs.

On a recent morning a dozen children at a Providence Head Start program sit on the floor around their teacher happily playing a name game.  There are 2,800 low income children enrolled in Head Start programs in the Ocean State. But next fall, because of sequestration cuts, the number will be reduced by 200. David Caprio, president of Children’s Friend, which operates the Rhode Island Head Start program, says the neediest children will be given preference.

Sequestration cuts will eliminate some 200 slots for kids enrolled in Rhode Island's Head Start program.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

“Unfortunately,” says Caprio, “many of these kids now will go into the public schools. They’ll go into kindergarten without being in a center-based or Head Start program and they’re going to go in behind their peers. And that’s harmful to the children because it’s hard for them to catch up.”

Head Start’s not the only social program to suffer from sequestration. In the coming months, 1,700 Rhode Island women and children will lose the nutritional supplement program known as WIC: Women, Infant and Children.   And next fall 4,000 will lose access to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program which helps people pay for heating oil. And 74-year-old Robert Pilkington of Warwick hopes he’s not one of them.

“It’s tough,” says Pilkington.  “It’s just like being unemployed and living on your unemployment check.”

Pilkington, a retired social worker, tries to get by on a roughly $1,700 a month Social Security check.  With heating oil running over four dollars a gallon, that leaves little money for anything else.  Pilkington received about $1,300 from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program this year. He fears a shutoff next fall when the sequestration cuts kick in.

“Well, it would really mean I couldn’t afford to heat the place. Or if I put in heat I’d have to go without food or not pay the electric bill or not pay the cable bill,” he says, “something else would have to go. Or cut down greatly on the food. I mean there’s only so much in my budget.”

The budget ax is coming down on the unemployed too.  Charles Fogarty, director of the State Department of Labor and Training, says letters are going out to 8,000 long-term unemployed Rhode Islanders notifying them that they will have their weekly checks cut by an average of $40 at the end of April.

“When you’re scrimping by on that amount of money, $35 to $40 a week makes a difference,” says Fogarty.  “It could be half a tank of gas, some groceries and so forth. So yeah, it’s going to have an impact – not only on them, but it’s $2 million a month out of the Rhode Island economy.”

Programs that provide subsidized housing for the poor will also be affected. Richard Godfrey of Rhode Island Housing says at least one homeless shelter will have to close and 525 families will lose vouchers that subsidize apartments and hotel rooms.

“The question,” says Godfrey “ is will the landlord evict them if they can’t pay the full rent or will they have to go someplace else to a substandard unit or will they become homeless or will they move in with someone else? It is certainly a dire situation for those 525 families.”

Some federal agencies have yet to decide how they will absorb the federal cut. But there is the potential for the loss of thousands of civilian defense jobs in Rhode Island, longer security lines at T.F. Green Airport and fewer services available to special education students next fall.

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