Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sequestration – it’s getting personal.

By Roxanne Reddington-Wilde
Action for Boston Community Development

The jokes are more pointed day by day.

Friday, March 1st: I walk in the door to work. “Well, looks like we’ve a job this morning. Think we will by tonight?” That welcomed me on the first day of sequestration. Or was that me greeting my office mates? A program director came wandering in later, and cracked the same joke. Everyone had the same worry.

In early February, all of us staff at Action for Boston Community Development got termination notices. “Should it become necessary,” ABCD could lay any one off, with no further notice, effective March 1st and beyond. And so all of us became personally familiar with Sequestration and the Federal Government’s inability to manage its long-term spending wisely.

A couple days ago, a Head Start site director brought by some “Stop Sequestration” petitions parents had been out collecting signatures on and paused to ask, “Do you think we’ll really be cut? When will we know? Parents are asking if we will be here next fall. They don’t want to enroll their kid now if we won’t be around come September.” She runs a single-classroom center. If she loses a critical mass of kids, her doors will shut. And, if people think her doors will shut, they won’t sign up their kids. There goes Head Start for that neighborhood… and everyone’s jobs at that center.

We’ve received lay-off notices before, when Congress contemplated CSBG spending cuts. When this one came, friends on my floor asked me, “how’s this any different?” Oh, it is. This is the law, not some possibility that might be voted in. And March 1st has come to pass. We were all still employed Friday the 1st at 5:00 and the anxiety behind the joking subsided a bit. We left with a “see you Monday morning… I think.”

Sunday morning and the Boston Globe ran a big story on “Cost of Sequestration Hits Home in Boston” (3/03/13). “Good,” I thought, “We’re letting everyone know what Massachusetts has to fight for.” Monday morning and I was feeling pretty relaxed, getting ready for work. I glanced at the Globe and saw another front page story, this one on Community Action directors gathering in DC for the NCAF conference and to personally speak to their congressional delegations on sequestration. “Well, that’s a first,” I thought. “NCAF makes the Globe for a yearly shindig in DC. Not bad, another chance to educate people on impacts of any cuts.” I skimmed the article. And there was our CEO, John Drew, mentioning the layoff notices and a new figure for me, saying he was “looking to lay off 100 staff.” My stomach sank. I did the math. We’re a big agency. Still, that comes out to 1 in every 8 staff. I started worrying personally again.

This week the jokes have been, “know where the unemployment office is?” and “So, hope you’ve got some vacation hours saved up.” Some folks are saying, half wistfully, “well, getting laid off would give time to get stuff done ‘round the house.” I’m known around the agency for public benefits advocacy work. A couple came to me and asked how long unemployment benefits run these days. I half jokingly said, “maybe I should book Mass Law Reform Institute to do another “know your unemployment rights” training… and invite all of ABCD.”

I’m proud of the way ABCD has been fighting to stop sequestration. We did a huge rally on February 25th with five members of our Congressional delegation and some 18 directors of statewide organizations whose services would be affected. All the local TV stations were there. The petitions and letters are pouring in to my department and we’re sending then on to said members of Congress.

At the last Head Start Parent Policy Council meeting, I explained how Sequestration would Head Start and the many other ABCD services. I couldn’t have been more proud when one woman – I don’t know if she was a parent or staff, and it doesn’t matter – said she decided to collect petition signatures on the street, at her local bus stop on the way to work and wherever she found herself. One man didn’t want to sign. She asked him what his mother would do if Meals on Wheels stopped bring her food. He signed.

The early-warning, lay-off notices were a wise move on ABCD’s part. The agency needs to be flexible so we can best preserve services for the many people of Boston and beyond who need fuel assistance, job training, Head Start, help applying for food stamps, ESOL and citizenship services if they are going to survive and make their way in a economy turned against them. But it feels like the government has turned against all of us.

Roxanne Reddington-Wilde has been a Community Planner at Action for Boston Community Development, Inc. since the August, 1996 week President Clinton signed Welfare Reform into existence and ABCD asked her to pull together a community conference on how that government action would affect the real lives of real human beings.