02/27/2013 02:17 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Sequestration's Human Sorrows

Last week I asked our students, faculty and staff at Trinity to tell me about the likely impact of sequestration on them and their families. Some of their responses are below in an open letter I have sent to President Obama and the Congressional leadership.

An Open Letter to President Obama and Congressional Leaders:

Sequestration, though still only a threat at this writing, is already causing profound anxiety among people and families in the Washington region. Should sequestration come to pass, countless citizens will suffer real economic harm, and quite needlessly. In particular, in D.C. and the surrounding counties, the people who depend on the federal government for their livelihood are already suffering tremendous uncertainty about whether they will be able to afford food and transportation, pay the rent or mortgage, meet college tuition payments.

You have heard from the large industry leaders -- defense, education, health care, business, nonprofits, as well as state governors who are more deeply frustrated than ever with Washington right now.

Higher education in the Washington region will also suffer extremely negative consequences in sequestration. At Trinity Washington University, I have asked our students, faculty and staff to tell me how sequestration will affect them. These messages from members of our college community put a human face on the draconian reality of sequestration should it come to pass. While some commentators have passed off the threat of sequestration as "small potatoes," for people suddenly contemplating having to choose among food, gasoline or staying in school, the consequences are enormous.

Below are direct quotations from the messages that members of the Trinity campus community sent to me in response to an email I sent out asking them to tell me their concerns about sequestration. All responders below gave me permission to quote them, but they asked to remain anonymous; there is so much real fear within the federal workforce and people who depend on federal services:

• [From a student]: 'I work for the federal government... Currently, both I and also my younger daughter are attending Trinity. She will be completing her undergrad in psychology in December and I'll be completing my master's program at the same time. As an employee working for [department], I am very concerned about how the possibility of the furloughs will affect our family from a financial perspective. I have heard that if it does occur, that it would be one day per week starting in April and continue for about six months. Since a large portion of the tuition that my ex-husband and I pay for my daughter is generated from our incomes, for my part, this could potentially result in me coming up with my portion for her Fall 2013 tuition a little challenging. ...Finally, a much larger impact is the uncomfortable feeling of how what you thought was a secure job is subject to cutbacks like any other position. There was a time when most people employed by the federal government felt 'secure' in their positions even when cutbacks and layoffs were happening in most other industries. Well, this is a lesson for all of us that this is a very 'false sense of security' and has created an increase level of uncertainty in my life personally.'

• [From a student]: 'For my family, the sequester would probably result in much more difficulty for me getting my foot in the door with a federal position. Financially speaking, we're just treading water as it is with my wife as the main bread-winner until I can find a good position with the federal government. The lead time for a new federal position is already painfully long, and we fear that the sequester would mean that the months long wait could turn into years- all the while I continue to accrue student debt and interest on said debt with no way to pay it down, and we get stuck in a financial quagmire.'

• [From a student]: 'The sequester could cause a furlough and as a federal employee, I need the money to pay for rent, food, etc. This can literally land us all on the streets. I try not to worry about it, but the reality is there.'

• [From a staff member]: '[an acquaintance] his notice that he would be one of the ones placed on a recurring furlough. Enclosed with the notice was a brochure called 'How to Budget your Money Successfully.' It is beyond appalling that the government, who caused the furlough mess by being unable to handle a budget themselves, would presume to lecture the employees paying the price for that... Needless to say, they are very worried about how they are going to cover their expenses, especially as she has had a very hard time finding a full time job in the current state of the economy.'

• [From a student]: 'I currently work part-time for the federal government under the student pathways program. I have just received an e-mail today saying that I will be furloughed if a decision is not made by March 1. This will greatly impact me being that I support myself as a student and depend on my job for funds towards my education, transportation, food and etc.'

• [From a faculty member]: 'My wife is an employee of [department]. We keep praying that her position is safe. I don't know how much the sequestration would affect us. We have to support our daughter who is a junior at [a major university] ...'

• [From an academic advisor]: 'Many of the students whom I advise in our School of Professional Studies graduate programs are or have been members of our nation's military... Cuts to tuition reimbursement will undoubtedly negatively impact our students' abilities to progress toward completing their degrees. Sequestration means completely reevaluating plans for financing and continuing their education...'

• [From an administrator]: 'My husband, who works for the [department], says that managers there have spent countless hours already planning for different scenarios. If the sequestration does go into effect, it will likely mean that my husband is furloughed, at least some, and our family finances will be impacted. Even if sequestration doesn't occur, the threat of it has already led to wasted time in government offices preparing for the possibility.'

• [From a faculty member]: 'Sequestration is likely to have an immediate impact on my family. My wife, a legal resident of the United States, is currently applying for a green card that will allow her to work freely in the United States and to travel back and forth to her home country without having to undergo the tiresome and humiliating visa application process every year. The sequester will hit parts of DHS, including those that process immigration applications. Every day that our applications are delayed is one fewer day of economic and personal freedom for her. It is also a blow to the country's economy. As a highly trained researcher who speaks several critical languages, she would be able to find work in a variety of areas. This is impossible under her current status.'

• [From a student]: 'This impending sequester has both my husband and I on edge. We are federal government workers and believe we will be furloughed. This will be a major blow to our finances. At this point, we are unsure as to how many days we will be furloughed. There will be no spending of extras, no vacations, no anything! We'll barely just be able to pay the mortgage and car notes.'

• [From a student]: 'I work for a contractor with [a federal department]. There is a lot of uncertainty. Our contract is up for renewal soon and we really don't know, how, if and for how much the contract will be renewed. The [department's] employees will have to take one day week off for about 22 weeks if the federal sequester takes place.'

• [From a faculty member]: '...I am extremely concerned for the futures of my two adult sons and my undergraduate students. Both of my sons may be impacted as one works directly for the government and the other is a government contractor. They have been informed that 'things' may change. Even worse, they have not been informed on what the 'things' are that may change. Moreover, many of my students believe that the federal sequester will negatively impact their financial stability and that of their parents and other family members. They are concerned because the threats may involve multiple furloughs or the devastating loss of jobs that are already providing insufficient incomes. On a daily basis, many students struggle to buy textbooks, pay tuition, or make ends meet while participating in what is essentially a three step process. Step one is to earn a degree, step two is to find a job, and step three is to begin a great career. My sons have successfully completed the first two steps, but have not quite reached step three. Further, if the sequester is allowed to occur, it may affect my students' abilities to even think about completing the first step, which may diminish all hopes of ever accomplishing steps two and three.'

• [From a faculty member]: '...Trinity has many students that are from generational poverty and that fact coupled with so many of them being under-resourced academically, the seat time that they miss with me affects me and the University's pass rates for their classes. Pass rates affect retention rates. Retention rates affect graduation rates. Graduation rates affect poverty rates. And poverty rates affect the general well being of the communities that we all live in, live around -- or blindly drive through...This sequester (from what I have read) is going to cut many of the unemployment checks that our students' families receive. For many of my students, the only financial support that they receive from their families is money for the metro.... the federal sequester is going to cut unemployment... The fact remains that our students need whatever small assistance they get from their families to get here - to get on-campus. A cut of even $3.50 in federal assistance ($1.75 one way for many students) -- will result in one less day one of my students will be on-campus...'

Sequestration will harm our nation in countless ways, and in particular, the harm to the students and families of our community -- not only at Trinity but throughout the Washington region -- will be a grave injustice, an immoral result of political posturing that will have devastating consequences for the citizens of this nation. Surely, responsible leaders can practice the fine art of compromise and come to a solution before sequestration occurs.

I implore Congress and the White House to find a sensible and just solution to the current impasse.


President Patricia McGuire
Trinity Washington University

Note: a version of this statement also appeared on the President's Blog of the Trinity website