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What Will Sequestration Mean for People with Disabilities?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Feb. 28, 2013

A series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to federal government spending totaling $1.2 trillion over the course of 10 years are set to take effect this Friday, March 1. Dubbed “sequestration” these cuts, if implemented, will be split between defense and domestic discretionary spending. 

The National Council on Disability (NCD) urges the Executive Branch and Congress to find a responsible alternative to sequestration to prevent potential harm to Americans with disabilities and their families.


Originally passed as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 on the heels of the debt ceiling compromise, the sequester was intended to pressure the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “Supercommittee”) to agree on a budget of $1.5 trillion by way of spending cuts and revenue increases over the next decade.

Congress stopped mandatory budget cuts from taking effect by passing the American Taxpayer Relief Act January 2 when the deadline was pushed back to March 1, 2013.  If Congress fails to agree on a budget to reduce the federal deficit by then $85 billion in spending cuts – split evenly between domestic and defense discretionary programs – will go into effect.

For Americans with disabilities, this means everything from special education to transportation, to housing and health care programs will “feel the pinch” due to the precarious collision of across-the-board cuts and unforeseen circumstances. 

Spending reductions break down into three broad categories:

  1. Defense spending. Amounts to half the sequester cuts.
  2. Non-defense. Includes housing, education, and employment programs.
  3. Medicare. Limited to a 2% cut in payments to Medicare providers, specifically hospitals and doctors. 


Mandatory programs

  • Assistance to individuals with low-incomes and their families like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or welfare), the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), unemployment benefits and provider payments made through Medicare will not be cut, although staff time and resources are likely to be compromised. 


  • While other non-defense programs are facing a 8.4 percent cut, Medicare cuts are limited to 2 percent per fiscal year. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that in 2013 a 2 percent cut totals $123 billion dollars.

Social Security

  • Disability benefits will also remain intact, but across-the-board budget cuts would force the SSA to “curtail service to the public,” according to the White House. Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue wrote on Feb. 7 that administrative cuts could slow disability claims, “If we do not have enough staff to keep up or if furloughs prevent them from working, the public can expect to wait longer in our offices, on the phone, and for disability decisions at all levels.”
  • Pending levels of initial disability claims are likely to rise by over 140,000 claims, and it is estimated that applicants will have to wait about two weeks longer for decision on disability claims and nearly a month longer for disability hearing decisions.


  • $1.9 billion in cuts to housing assistance for an estimated 125,000 Americans, including assistance for elderly and people with disabilities, as part of the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program would be lost – increasing the possibility of homelessness, according to testimony to the Senate by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan on February 14.
  • Rural rental assistance for 10,000 very low-income rural people, mostly single women, seniors, or people with disabilities would be eliminated as a result of cuts to the Department of Agriculture.


  • $978 million in comprehensive funding cuts would affect 30.7 million special education students.
  • Funding for special education, specifically, would be slashed by nearly $600 million, reducing supports for students with disabilities to 2005 levels.
  • Federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) will be reduced by 28 percent, totaling a loss of one billion dollars.
  • Close to 15,000 special education teachers could lose their jobs resulting in larger class sizes.
  • 70,000 children, many of them disabled, would be dropped from Head Start programs.
  • Funding for “up to 7,200″ special education support workers – such as personnel aides and money for assistance – would also be eliminated, according to the White House.


  • Vocational rehabilitation stands to lose $160 million leading to the reduction of services, increasing wait times for services and placing disabled job seekers in administrative limbo on waiting lists.


  • Military Pay (including PCS and Subsistence) is exempt under the sequestration exemption. Programs such as TRICARE, tuition assistance and family support programs are not exempt and do fall under sequestration.
  • There are no direct cuts to Veterans Administration health care programs under sequestration, but individuals forced to turn to the VA to obtain care they normally receive under TRICARE could add increased burdens to the system. 

Bottom line

The sequester would place tens of thousands of Americans with disabilities at greater risk for hunger and homelessness, endanger the education of millions of children with disabilities and delay employment services and disability benefits for scores of people with disabilities – including disabled veterans – who are, on average, already at greater risk of poverty.

An official website of the National Council on Disability