Speak Your Piece: Sequester Means Disaster

The coming "sequester" of federal funds doesn't hit everyone equally. In Indian Country, the effects will be devastating.

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Editor’s Note: The Washington Post reports that people in both parties are expecting that across-the-board spending cuts would probably begin March 1.

This is the “sequester” that was part of the budget deal last year. It requires automatic cuts in federal budgets if Congress fails to pass a budget. Mark Trahant writes about what this would mean for Indian Country. See his website for more.

I had better not bury the lede: The sequester is going to rip apart higher education in Indian Country. It’s going to be ugly, folks, and worse, self-defeating. Haskell Indian Nations University is facing a budget cut that’s almost 30 percent. This is what “deep” spending cuts look like.

Now let’s explore the logical, make that the illogical, progression.

The big challenge is not federal “spending,” but a global, demographic age imbalance. Simply put: There are more older people, requiring medical care and retirement benefits, and there are fewer workers left to pay the bills.

Indian Country should be part of any solution because we have a younger population, a potential workforce, that has more younger people than old. So the most important thing we can do is invest in educational opportunities for young people. In order to take advantage of the demographic gap, we need more of our young people in college, in technical training programs, and in any opportunity that will enable them to be successful workers.

That brings us to the sequester. 

In about a month the federal government is likely to do the opposite of what’s in the country’s best interest. Instead of investing in young people, those who could pay the bills as they build their lives, the country is going to make it more difficult and expensive for them to succeed. (Already the country is burying young people in student debt. But that’s another post down the road.)

The national disinvestment in young people will surface across the board, and soon, from scholarships to significant budget cuts and tribal colleges and universities.

In a memorandum to tribal college presidents, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium expects a 6 percent cut in operating funds. On top of that, research funding will drop from all federal sources. About the only good news, the memo says, is that most “federal student loans would mostly be protected and Pell Grants, as we have stated earlier, are actually scheduled to increase for the 2013-14 academic year.”

On the other hand, programs such as TRIO, a federal program providing “services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds” will be cut by at least $66 million. That will impact just about every college and university in the country. Federal work study programs will also be cut by more than $50 million. That program has helped many students work part-time during college.

Tribal colleges are important for many reasons beyond education. They are often community economic and idea generators. Because of that, these federal budget cuts will not just hit the schools, but the communities where they reside.

The Haskell class of 2007 graduates.

Because of the way the sequester is structured, the immediate impact on direct federal programs is likely to be greater, for example on those colleges operated by the Bureau of Indian Education.

Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, is looking at an immediate budget cut of as much as 29 percent. This will be difficult to pull off. Already many of Haskell’s faculty and staff are furloughed for 12 weeks, making an additional furlough cruel if not impossible.

In the short-term, at least under the sequester, it’s impossible to close Haskell. But that’s only because there is no money under sequester for layoffs or other costs associated with closure. Next year all bets are off.

I understand the Bureau of Indian Education is also considering a $1,700 student fee increase to help make up the funding gap. But this idea is self-defeating, since many Haskell students are there because it’s often the only affordable higher education opportunity for some students.

So if the course ahead is going to be a disaster, why proceed? There is still time to stop this wreck. At least, if nothing else, set it aside for a year so there can be real planning and fundraising to replace government money. 

The Washington Post reports today that there’s no deal in sight. “Adding to the sense of inevitability is the belief that the cuts, known as the sequester, would improve the government’s bottom line without devastating the broader economy,” the Post says.

Yeah? And in what universe? In Indian Country the sequester will be devastating.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up here.

 

 

 

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