In April, the sequester that had flown under the radar for most Americans at last entered the public spotlight. As cuts led to furloughs for air traffic controllers and other FAA personnel, flight delays frustrated passengers across the country.
Congress responded by passing a bill to ease the burden on travelers, but the bill did nothing to mitigate the impact of the sequester on those suffering the most from its effects. When we pass piecemeal, band-aid fixes to the sequester, we leave people behind, including cancer patients, low-income children attending Head Start, and seniors relying on Meals on Wheels. That's why both of us opposed the FAA sequester fix bill and continue to push instead for a replacement of the entire sequester with a balanced approach.
Since coming into effect in March, the sequester has begun imposing severe and arbitrary spending cuts for programs that make a real difference in the lives of so many families struggling to make ends meet. From Maryland to California, and every state in between, the most vulnerable in our society were hit first and hit hardest as a result of Congress letting sequestration take effect, especially in communities of color.
From infants to seniors, the sequester affects at-risk Americans in every age bracket, and its cuts will harm families trying to put food on the table. Simply put, the sequester will erect road blocks along the pathways out of poverty.
For the youngest Americans, the more than $900 million on the chopping block for early childhood care and education means fewer opportunities to catch up to their peers in school. As many as 70,000 children could be dropped from Head Start. These cuts would disproportionately impact children of color, who constitute nearly 60 percent of those participating in Head Start. These children, truly the 'least of these,' need to be protected and empowered, not shunted off the track to academic success and the opportunity for higher education that comes with it.
For our aspiring college students, the sequester could make it harder to matriculate or afford tuition. Federal funding for education could be cut by as much as $3 billion, affecting 9.3 million students seeking subsidized college loans, work-study opportunities, or enrollment in English-language programs. Eighty-one percent of African Americans and 67 percent of Latinos leave college with student loan debt, and sequestration's arbitrary cuts to student loan financing could keep many young people of color from obtaining a post-secondary education that provides the best pathway to the middle class.
For the long-term jobless relying on unemployment insurance as they look for work, benefits could diminish by nearly 11 percent, making an already difficult situation even worse. Workforce development programs and job-creating investments in public infrastructure could also be at risk of significant cuts, further raising obstacles to employment for those who so desperately seek it. While the unemployment rate overall dropped to a four-year low of 7.5 percent in April, the rate for Latinos remains at 9 percent. For African Americans, that figure reaches 13.2 percent.
For our seniors who are homebound, the sequester could cut 4 million Meals on Wheels deliveries. We simply can't let partisan dysfunction in Congress stand in the way of caring for America's seniors in need. The sequester isn't just harming us today; it will put the future health of our nation in jeopardy. The National Institutes of Health, which is instrumental in developing new drugs and sponsoring new discoveries in medical science, could lose $1.6 billion in funding for research on new treatments for conditions like diabetes and cancer.
The sequester will not help us create jobs, nor is it a rational approach to our deficit challenge. Chief among its flaws is that it pays no attention to our national priorities. Any family knows that, when funds are running low, prioritizing where to cut is the first step. However, under the sequester, Congress isn't allowed to prioritize but is obligated to slash the same percentage from nearly every program, no matter the outcome.
The only way Congress can undo this irrational and irresponsible sequester -- and reaffirm our commitment to eradicating poverty in America -- is by achieving a big and balanced solution to deficits that restores fiscal discipline and leaves us room to prioritize our investments.
As the sequester continues to take effect, we will keep pushing for Congress to reach an agreement that protects the most vulnerable in our country from this unfair, unnecessary, and unwise process. We will keep working to remind Americans and our colleagues in Congress that there is a painful, human cost to sequestration -- one we must prevent before it becomes worse.
For these and so many other reasons, we have formed the new Democratic Whip's Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity. Aimed at developing support for a national strategy to eliminate barriers to opportunity and to eradicate poverty, its initial goal has been set at cutting poverty in half within ten years -- one that becomes harder to achieve as long as the sequester remains in place.
This is not only sound economic policy -- it's the right thing to do. When one American family fails, it means we have all failed to meet our common responsibility to one another. Democrats and Republicans share a moral obligation to work together to fight poverty in this country and ensure that all of our people have equal access to the opportunities that sustain our American Dream.