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Debt, Austerity and the Sequester

By Pauline Holdsworth


In the B-movie adaptation of this political year, we’ve already run out the clock twice.

That’s one of the dominant metaphors being used to talk about the sequester and the student loan rate increase that went into effect on July 1st. But although imagery associated with disaster and crisis has been repeatedly evoked to describe the fallout from these two failed compromises, a conversation about what disaster really means – and who bears the brunt of its effects – has gone mostly ignored.

Mainstream media analysis has largely cited partisan gridlock with a sense of vague bemusement, wondering why Congress continues setting up “ticking bomb” deadlines if they plan to just keep sailing by them. Though gridlock has played an important role in most of the major political fights this year, there’s more to the story than an inability to make a good deal.

When the American government, which made more money off of student loans last year than Exxon Mobile makes in profit annually, fails to pass legislation that would stop interest rates on those loans from doubling, it’s not by accident. That’s not an oversight, or a case of not having enough time to reach compromise.

And if it’s a disaster, it’s one that’s been expertly designed.

It’s difficult to strike a deal in today’s Congress. But when that is the only angle we take in framing these stories, we miss the ideological motivations underpinning both the sequester and the student loan rate increase.

The sequester was supposed to translate into cuts across the board, from military to social support programs. It was billed as a “dumb” cut that would be bad for everyone, regardless of their political identification. Last week, however, The Washington Post ran an article praising the sequester for its newfound flexibility, noting that Washington officials have managed to undo many of the sequester’s “scariest restrictions.” Members of the Post went through 42 of the administration’s predictions, arguing that since many of them were averted or diminished by government actions, the sequester never became the disaster it was supposed to be.

That same day, however, Ohio newspapers reported that Head Start programs for low-income preschoolers were closing their doors in several of the state’s counties. Since the sequester began in March, both national media and local media in Indiana, Tennessee, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Florida have reported similar cuts and restrictions to Head Start programs in their communities. In some places, schools are holding lotteries to determine which children will lose their spots; in others, transportation routes have been cut, making it harder for rural, low-income children to access education.

Sequester-driven cuts to services for survivors of intimate partner violence are coming at a time when crisis centers and shelters across the country are reporting dramatic increases in violence. According to the 2012 Mary Kay Truth About Abuse survey, 58% of shelters reported that the abuse they witnessed or encountered is more violent than before the economic crisis, and 74% of survivors accessing services reported that they stayed with their abuser out of economic necessity. Another 62% of survivors reported that they were unable to find a job because of the economy.

As the economic crisis plays out alongside various dynamics of gender and class, and across intimate relationships, these intersections can become sites for increased violence, closing off routes for escape and employment. Sequester-driven cuts are replicating the violence and isolation experienced by survivors. That’s happening today, and it’s been happening for months, in communities across the country. It’s happening while national newspapers breathe a collective sigh of relief about the disaster we supposedly averted, citing FBI employees who avoided furloughs and comforting images of newly efficient-again airport lines. The mainstream media elects not to show the way survivors of domestic violence are diverted into homeless shelters without training or resources to provide vital safety measures, or talk about the fact that those homeless shelters may soon not have enough beds to accept people in crisis at all.

“In the process, the ‘meat cleaver’ of sequestration became a scalpel. It spared crucial programs but cut second-tier priorities such as maintenance, information technology, employee travel and scientific conferences,” reads the Post article. That depends on how you define priorities and precision. Government officials have certainly been able to draw back on certain aspects of the sequester, but they’ve done according to their own priorities and not those of communities already living in disaster, already experiencing violence and marginalization on an intensely personal level.

Meanwhile, reports ThinkProgress, there are lists and lists of vital programs the government refuses to give the same consideration they gave to long lines at airports. Those services include long-term unemployment aid, low-income housing, workplace safety, Meals on Wheels, and disaster relief. We’re still being told the sequester wasn’t the doomsday scenario we were warned it would become – but that’s because as the cuts have begun to impact more privileged communities, they’ve been scaled back.

For other communities, they’ve worsened and replicated existing crises in America. The cuts have amplified forms of violence that are already invisibilized in the media and national consciousness. The sequester may have been billed as a neutral, sweeping cut, but as the months have gone on, it’s become anything but neutral.

We’re already seeing media reports that argue the student loan rate increase isn’t as bad as it sounds, that it doesn’t change things for students today but makes necessary economic decisions for the future. But for students already bearing the brunt of the economic inequality high interest rates on student loans often help to perpetuate, this increase will make higher education even more inaccessible. It will disproportionately affect communities of color, working students, parenting students, street-involved students, low-income students, and students whose chronic health conditions lengthen their degrees and require them to take out more loans.

The sequester and the student loan increase aren’t just by-products of a failure to work together. They have been crucial in the creation of a series of economic disasters many members of Congress have a vested interest in maintaining. As these new rates go into effect, instead of using crisis as a metaphor or as a catchy lede, we need to pay close attention to who’s paying for that crisis – and who’s profiting.

Follow Pauline on Twitter @Holdswo.

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Pauline Holdsworth

Writer/reporter & @UBCJournalism grad student. Interested in community health, consent, feminism, science fiction, & #yalit.

Catch up with me @holdswo.




economic justice


July 14, 2013

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