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CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- A 60-year-old man living on disability payments and food stamps in suburban Denver called the Hunger Free Hotline Tuesday afternoon.
"I got a letter from the state of Colorado stating that my food stamps are going to decrease," the man said. "I only get $200 a month. I think I may need to start getting some assistance in that area."
He was one of five callers in an hour to one hotline worker that afternoon. A Colorado Springs woman was also concerned about the letter notifying her of a benefit decrease on Nov. 1. Two men said they were homeless and needed food; one of them also needed insulin to control his diabetes. Another woman's husband had left her and her four children, and they needed food while waiting for a food stamp application to be approved.
The federal budget mess -- the end of stimulus money, bringing reductions in food stamp benefits; sequestration cuts that took effect in March; and the potential for more across-the-board cuts, or even a government shutdown -- is taking its toll in Colorado and across the nation.
From food stamps to water gauges, more Coloradans will feel potentially greater pain from sequestration and other budget cuts in the months to come if Congress fails to reach a deal.
A second round of automatic, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration will kick in if Congress fails to enact a budget that reduces spending elsewhere or raises money to pay for programs. That means furloughs for federal workers, cuts in defense contracts, reductions in education spending and more.
The first round of sequestration potentially meant cuts of up to $106 million for state agencies, with $40.6 million coming from education, Colorado budget analysts estimated earlier this year. Those analysts have yet to tabulate the actual outcomes since that round of cuts took effect March 1.
But Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, said the impact is real. Her statewide nonprofit group works to increase public awareness about and to reduce hunger. It also operates the Hunger Free Hotline.
In addition to the upcoming food stamp decreases, sequestration meant cuts to low-income housing, Head Start and child care. In other words, those who can least afford it may be most affected, Underhill said.
"There's this whole litany of programs that are creating a domino effect, a cascading effect for low-income homes in Colorado. These are families that are just a paycheck away" from financial disaster, she said.
It isn't just sequestration, but also an automatic cut in food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as the 2009 stimulus runs out, and the potential of the House-approved $40 billion cut to the program, that poses a threat to many families.
Now food stamps offer about $1.56 per person per meal; as of Nov. 1, that will be cut in Colorado to $1.40.
"That might not sound like a lot, but when you think about that, there's no room to absorb in a family's budget," said Underhill.
She said more than half of the 507,000 Coloradans on food stamps live at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty level -- $12,000 in annual income for a family of four. Consider potential cuts to other social programs, such as Head Start and child-care subsidies, and such families have little incentive to work if most of their income would go toward child care.
In Colorado Springs, Head Start cut the number of children served from 1,034 to 892 last spring. That's five classrooms of children eliminated, Linda Meredith, chief operation officer for Community Partnership for Child Development, said in an email.
That's not the only impact in Colorado Springs, home to two military bases, the Air Force Academy and a host of private contractors that serve the defense industry. Federal travel cutbacks are hurting convention business there. And contractors are nervous about the uncertainty.
State Sen. Kent Lambert, a Republican who represents the area and serves on the state Legislature's budget committee, said it's not easy to ferret out specifics of sequestration impacts, because other government actions such as the threatened shutdown also figure in.
"I think there are some tangible things, but it's hard to tell which negative effect is having the ultimate effect," he said. "There's probably no one factor that drives the train on all this."
'See what happens'
In some instances, organizations and agencies are working around the initial March sequestration cuts -- thus far, at least.
"What we're hearing is that a lot of people are just building this into their budget," said Ali Mickelson, a tax policy attorney with the Colorado Fiscal Institute.
The U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, found partners such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board to pay to keep four streamflow gauges running during the past several months. But more of those gauges will be threatened if another round of sequestration occurs.
"We operate them year round. There are more than 300 of them in Colorado," said Jim Kircher, director of the USGS Colorado Water Science Center in Lakewood.
Those gauges were essential in warning of floods in the state earlier this month.
"Even recreationists use those gauging stations to decide where they're going to go fishing, whether they're going to go canoeing," Kircher said.
As Congress nears the Monday deadline for a budget deal to avoid a shutdown, followed by a mid-October deadline to raise the federal debt limit, Kircher, Underhill and others are worried.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty within the next month," state Senator Lambert said.
Specialists at the Hunger Free Hotline tell clients that Congress is behind the November cuts and potentially more food stamp reductions. They ask callers whether they want to receive email alerts about taking action to contact representatives.
"No, I don't need that," said the 60-year-old disabled man.
As with most callers, the man was referred to private food pantries in an effort to bridge the upcoming gap. The hotline specialist locates the nonprofits nearest the callers, giving them addresses, phone numbers, operating hours and identification requirements. Two pantries were near the 60-year-old man's apartment.
"Let me start with those two," he said, "and see what happens."