March 8, 2013

Congress needs to end the sequester before it causes serious pain, Arizona Daily Star

By Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Just as our slow climb out of the recession has gotten Tucson’s unemployment rate down to 6.9 percent, certain members of Congress are ready, and apparently willing, to jeopardize that recovery by embracing the sequester.

The sequester, which makes across-the-board cuts to government departments and agencies, including the military, will inflict real pain on real people and businesses, including those in Tucson. Among the first to be affected will be some of the poorest in our community.

This threat has hung over our heads for months now, and as a result, some may have started to wonder if its consequences are real. Unfortunately, they are, particularly for a community like Tucson. We have a large military base that will be affected. We have defense contractors, including Raytheon, that will be affected. We have a major research institution that will be affected.

Cities, towns and counties, schools, roads, parks, law enforcement, hospitals, customs and Border Patrol, airports – all will be affected. The list is long, and people and businesses from the Grand Canyon (open fewer hours) to the border port of entry in Nogales (fewer agents on duty) will be affected.

Effects won’t be immediate. Most will take a month, two months, or more, before their impact is felt.

For this, my second guest column on poverty, I had hoped to discuss more of the proactive steps my Poverty Task Force is taking. Helping develop and implement a coordinated entry system for the homeless to access social services is one example.

Instead of talking about how our community is working together to reduce homelessness – and we are – I must talk about how the congressional sequester is going to force some of our poorest residents out of the Section 8 housing program.

At this point, 250 to 400 Tucson families may be affected, starting May 1. That’s with program administration being cut at a much steeper rate – 31 percent – than the vouchers themselves, at 6 percent. And it’s with the city staff looking at every way possible to reduce the impact of these cuts on program participants.

Already, Tucson has far more demand for housing assistance than available vouchers. The waiting list is closed, with more than 10,000 names on it. Taking a family with children, or an elderly person with health issues, who made it to the top of that long list and into housing, and telling them that the voucher that makes it possible for them to stay in that housing is being taken away by Congress – this is not something I or the city staff are looking forward to.

That this is happening because Congress will not come together and work toward a balanced solution is unjustifiable. “Do nothing” is not an option for those of us in local government who must cope with Congress’ failure to act.

In my State of the City address in February, I said that Tucson is a community where people care for one another. We are also a deeply resilient community. We must summon both caring and resilience to deal with the challenges ahead.

Local nonprofits that help our homeless and poor can surely use donations – Primavera, the food bank and many others also face reduced federal funding and increased demand for services as a result of sequestration. Please, consider how you can help. It doesn’t have to be much, if we all pitch in and do what feels right.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the sequester, this community is going to continue to work together to develop pathways out of poverty for Tucsonans. We’re going to take a holistic approach: efficient use of available federal dollars, plus effective programs in areas like financial, job and literacy training.

We’re going to adapt, and make sure we adopt ways of doing things that provide the greatest good, for the greatest number. It’s what we expect of each other, and of our government.

Our Southern Arizona representatives, U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Ron Barber, understand this and are pushing for a negotiated end to the sequester. Let’s hope the rest of Congress gets the message.

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