One of the broad generalization you hear about the sequester is that it exempted the big programs that benefit the poor and elderly, notably Social Security, Medicare (the benefits, not the provider payments), Medicaid, CHIP and SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps). It’s largely true, and progressive unhappiness over the erroneous belief in the White House that sequestration would never actually happen should be balanced with appreciation that the president (and more specifically, his chief negotiator Jack Lew) insisted on these exemptions.

But as the New York Times‘ Annie Lowrey explains today, the exemptions hardly insulated needy Americans from the sequester’s willy-nilly destructiveness:

The $85 billion in automatic cuts working their way through the federal budget spare many programs that aid the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program and food stamps.

But the sequestration cuts, as they are called, still contain billions of dollars in mandatory budget reductions in programs that help low-income Americans, including one that gives vouchers for housing to the poor and disabled and another that provides fortified baby formula to the children of poor women.

Unless a deal is reached to change the course of the cuts, housing programs would be hit particularly hard, with about 125,000 individuals and families put at risk of becoming homeless, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated. An additional 100,000 formerly homeless people might be removed from emergency shelters or other housing arrangements because of the cuts, the agency said….

Other programs that assist low-income families face similarly significant cuts, including one that delivers hot meals to the elderly and another that helps pregnant women. Policy experts are particularly concerned about cuts to the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, which provides food and baby formula for at-risk families.

It is considered one of the most effective social programs in government, reducing anemia and increasing birth weights. But up to 775,000 low-income women and their children might lose access to or be denied that aid because of the mandatory cuts, according to calculations by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group.

These are effects from mandated cuts that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) calls a “pittance,” which is cold comfort to the people we are talking about. And that’s aside from the particular vulnerability of low-income folk to cuts in non-means-tested programs, not to mention a slowed or stalled economic recovery.

Most Republicans, of course, favor replacing sequestration, if at all, only with a package of far more extensive budget cuts with the low-income exemptions removed entirely, particularly for Medicaid, a program they want to turn into a “block grant” with rapidly reduced federal funding and zero federal guarantees for eligibility or services.

But in no small part because of conservatives’ unwillingness to look at what federal dollars actually buy (the opposition to “current services budgeting” I wrote about earlier today), compounded by an inability to look at low-income programs as anything other than socialistic “income redistribution,” we’ll continue to hear them complain that the sequester is just a tiny down payment on the kind of massive domestic spending reductions the country needs.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.