8 Ways the Sequester Could Ruin Your Life

Here come longer airport lines, a shortage of meat, shuttered national parks, and worse.

Lynne Sladky/AP

Let’s admit it: we’ve all heard the word “sequester” being thrown around by the president and other politicians lately, and we’ve pretty much done everything in our power to ignore it.

Unfortunately, we can tune out this discussion no longer. The time has come to take our heads out of the sand and understand not only what the word sequester means, but the many ways in which, if enacted, it will totally ruin our lives.

First things first: What is the sequester, and where did it come from? Remember, after the whole fiscal-cliff showdown at the end of 2012, when everyone warned that the battle was far from over? This is what they were talking about. The sequester is the trade-off for the tax hikes the cliff deal avoided: a collection of across-the-board budget cuts adding up to about $1.2 trillion dollars over 10 years. It’s a manufactured political crisis, basically, and everyone shares some blame for it. Nonetheless, the cuts will go into effect on March 1 unless Congress can agree on another way to reduce the deficit. To be fair, it’s possible that they’ll get their act together in time. So far, no one seems willing to budge.

Much of the media’s focus has been centered on how the cuts will hit the defense complex—and rightly so, since the Pentagon stands to lose $500 billion from its budget. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has deemed this a potential “disaster,” resulting in fewer troops, billions of dollars no longer sent to fighters in Afghanistan, and the elimination of equipment and training programs—not to mention a furlough of one day per week for the DOD’s 791,000 civilian workers and decreased employment opportunities for defense contractors.

But people with defense-related jobs aren’t the only ones who will feel the pain. While Congress deliberates, don’t you think you should be prepared for some of the effects these budget cuts could have on your life? We do. Here are a few tips.

1. Stock up on meat now—it might not be available for long.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service says it will be forced to furlough employees if cuts are enacted. Without enough qualified inspectors—the people paid to make sure your burger is made of beef and not horse —production won’t be able to continue at its current rate. This week, the American Meat Institute, a national trade association, warned U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter that furloughing food inspectors “would have a profound, indeed devastating, effect on meat and poultry companies, and consumers, not to mention the producers who raise the cattle, hogs, lamb, and poultry processed in those facilities.”

Even vegetarians wouldn’t escape unscathed. More than two thousand fewer types of food inspections could occur as a result of sequester cuts, putting eaters of all kinds at risk of exposure to food-borne illnesses.

2. Get ready to tighten the belt on your small business.

Anyone with a small business should fear the sequester, as loan guarantees provided by the Small Business Administration will be cut by up to $902 million. This will place a huge financial burden on small business owners who rely on those loan guarantees to create jobs and keep their operations afloat.

3. Looking forward to finally visiting Yellowstone this summer? Well…

You might want to put your vacation plans on hold, as $110 million of the looming cuts would impact national parks across the country. Ranger programs would be eliminated and thousands of visitors would be turned away. For example, Mount Rainier, near Seattle, would be forced to permanently close one of its main visitor centers, while Montana’s Glacier National Park would postpone opening one of its most popular mountain passes.

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4. Actually, just give up on traveling altogether.

Just when you thought flying couldn’t get any less pleasant, the Federal Aviation Administration stands to furlough all 47,000 of its employees one day for every two-week pay period. This will result in a reduction of about 10 percent of the FAA’s workforce—people like air traffic controllers—on any given day, leading to reduced and delayed takeoffs, even slower security lines, and fewer flights. “It’s going to be like perpetual bad weather,” as the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition put it.

5. If you’re a parent, a student or a teacher, there’s a good chance you’re going to get screwed.

More than 2,700 schools would lose funding through the federal Title I program, which targets communities with a high percentage of low-income students. That cut alone would affect nearly 1.2 million disadvantaged students and could mean layoffs for about 10,000 teachers and aides and the elimination of afterschool programs, individual instruction, and other activities that encourage higher achievement. In addition, federal funding for over 7,000 special-education teachers and aides would also be cut, as would Head Start and Early Head Start services—resulting in over 14,000 teachers, assistants, and other staff losing their jobs and 70,000 children losing access to early education.

6. Sure, coastal cities are lovely, but unless you’re trained in disaster response it might be time to move.

We’d better hope the recent string of disastrous storms is not the new normal. If sequester cuts go into effect, FEMA will be forced to cut an unspecified number of state and local grants that fund emergency responders.

7. Get an HIV test while it’s still easy.

Cuts to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program could result in the administration of 424,000 fewer HIV tests, according to the White House. Fewer tests could lead to more HIV transmissions, higher health-care costs and, ultimately more deaths—not to mention the fact that the cuts will put 7,400 patients at risk of losing access to lifesaving drugs.

8. Buy a hard hat and brush up on your rules for workplace safety.

Inspectors for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could be furloughed or even laid off, President Obama has warned, meaning some of the country’s most dangerous workplaces will go uninspected for an extended period of time, potentially leading to more on-the-job injuries and deaths.