Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tightening My Belt - Personal Perspective on Budget Sequestration


I was text messaging with one of my colleagues at work and she mentioned there were town hall meetings at work today. Like most Federal employees we are anticipating budget sequestration starting 1 March, and for us that means a 20% reduction in hours and a 20% pay cut which will probably go on for two weeks. Nothing is certain yet, of course. That would be too simple, you know, actually allowing people to make solid plans.

I’ve been anticipating this for a while, so personally I am not too freaked out or frightened. Fortunately my husband and I are very financially conservative and we have always been very cautious and thrifty with our money. We live well below our income and so we can absorb a 20% pay cut with some tightening up of our belts. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t hurt. We have some savings goals that are important to us, and those will have to be on hold until this is over. We were hoping to buy a house this summer and we will probably need to hold off until my salary returns to normal. We will also have to limit some of the things we do for fun, like going out to eat, hiring babysitters, traveling, and purchasing non-necessary items. So while I’m not panicking, I’m definitely unhappy.

I do think it’s important to reduce the budget deficit, but this is not a just or reasonable way to do it.  First of all, most federal employees are not in the same position I am in. For most of the people I work with, a 20% pay cut is jeopardizing their ability to pay their bills and care for their families. Please believe that kind of impact will roll down to other people. If I, in a position of relative security, am making plans to cut back expenses and postpone major purchases, what do you think people with less security will be doing? And what will that do to the places they shop, the people they already owe money to, all of the other, non government business trying to keep going in an uncertain economy? Depending on which data source you use, there are probably about 2 million full time employees in the executive branch - that doesn't count employees in the postal service, the legislative branch, the executive branch or the military. That's an awful lot of potential customers not going shopping.

Second, it seems terribly unfair to finance the government's debt primarily off the backs of those who are federal employees. I’ll be honest; that’s how it feels to me. Instead of saying yes, we’ll increase taxes moderately on those who are wealthy, or even saying  yes, we'll increase taxes on everyone a little bit, our leaders in Washington are doing the equivalent of increasing taxes by 20% (that’s 1/5! Of my salary!) on federal employees. Who, I can assure you, are not high income earners by and large. We are not an overpaid crew of people. I know because I am at the highest possible grade and step of the pay scale, and I make less than the median income (according to salary.com) for a general adult psychiatrist in my area.  And that median income for a general adult psychiatrist is under the lowest of the many definitions of “wealthy” that I’ve heard bandied about in the news recently. So if I’m significantly below the threshold, that means almost everyone I work with, almost all of the federal work force, is much, much further below it. Is it fair to use me and my family and my colleagues and their families, all of us solidly in the middle class bracket, to pay off a debt that we all, as a nation, helped accumulate? Everyone benefitted from Bush-era tax cuts. Shouldn’t everyone be helping pay that back?     

Third, this kind of drastic cut is going to have a terrible impact on the ability of every federal organization to provide services. Think about getting your job done with 1/5 of the people missing for the next 22 weeks. How well do you think that's going to go? And whether you like the federal government or not, whether you like federal programs or not, the reality is that everyone depends on these programs to some extent or another, every single day. This is not a good idea. 

I know we’ll get through. I don’t do my job for the money, obviously, and there will still be patients to take care of and I will. I believe that many of my colleagues will do the same. And I hope that our elected leaders will take a step back and really think about this. I hope they will think about solutions that are just, even-handed and that don’t create such a terrible impact on the people who have dedicated their careers to public service. I don’t have a lot of faith in our legislature right now, but I will hope. And in the meantime, I’ll be tightening up my belt.