CONCORD -- Automatic federal spending cuts known as "sequestration" are costing Contra Costa County residents millions of dollars in lost services and jobs, according to a new report commissioned by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.

Called "Cuts to Nowhere," the analysis singles out Head Start, West Contra Costa schools and Meals on Wheels among the hardest-hit local programs in the congressman's home district.

"When I travel around the district and listen to my constituents, most have no idea what sequestration is," Miller said. "I want to be able to show people in a digestible way what sequestration really means."

Among the impacts outlined in the report:

Automatic federal spending cuts known as "sequestration" are costing Contra Costa County residents millions of dollars in lost services and jobs,
Automatic federal spending cuts known as "sequestration" are costing Contra Costa County residents millions of dollars in lost services and jobs, according to a new report commissioned by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group Archives)

  • Head Start cut nine weeks from its 45-week preschool program for 600 poor children and eliminated nine staff positions. The agency also ended its weekly home visit program for nearly 60 low-income parents with infants and toddlers.

  • West Contra Costa Unified School District lost $1.6 million for a range of programs, including adult education classes.

  • The Contra Costa Housing Authority cut by 512 units the number of rental vouchers for the poor. Those lucky enough to get a subsidy will see an average $120-a-month hike in their rents.

  • Meals on Wheels is serving 200 fewer hot meals a day to poor housebound elders after sequestration sucked $90,000 out of its $3 million budget.

    Inserted into the bitterly fought 2011 budget act, $85 billion worth of automatic across-the-board spending cuts were supposed to motivate warring legislators to reach a long-term federal deficit reduction deal.

    Most Democrats dislike automatic spending reductions as arbitrary cuts that hurt the economy and disproportionately hurt the poor who rely on federal services.

    In contrast, many Republicans say the strategy will ultimately force lawmakers to make tough spending choices rather than raise taxes that stall economic growth.

    But the threat of sequestration proved an insufficient motivator, and the automatic cuts went into effect in March.

    And unless federal lawmakers reach a budget deal soon, $100 billion worth of cuts will kick in next year, according to congressional estimates.

    Miller, who has served in Congress since 1975, co-sponsored H.R. 699, the "Stop the Sequester Job Loss Now Act." He wants to replace the across-the-board reductions with targeted cuts in farm subsidy programs and higher taxes for the wealthy and global corporations.

    "Unfortunately, based on what I'm hearing now, we are probably on a course to enter a second year of automatic cuts," said Miller, who will urge his colleagues to produce similar reports on the impacts in their districts. "But you cannot cut your way to a healthy economy. I'm hoping to bring more transparency to what having a budget on autopilot really means."

    At Contra Costa's Meals on Wheels, losing more federal dollars next year would be "big," said Director Paul Kraintz.

    The nonprofit serves an average 1,300 meals a day and relies heavily on donations and volunteers along with the federal money.

    But with 1,000 seniors on its waiting list, less cash means more elderly will go without a hot, nutritious meal and more seniors leaving their homes and going into more expensive nursing homes, Kraintz said.

    "We would survive, but we will serve a whole lot less people," Kraintz said.

    Contra Costa County Community Services Bureau Director Camilla Rand concurred.

    Her agency oversees Head Start, which runs 14 preschools for poor children who also receive a hot breakfast, lunch and snack.

    Fewer weeks in the school year not only diminishes school readiness for disadvantaged youngsters, but it means fewer meals, Rand said.

    "It's easy not to put a face with the cuts that are being made," Rand said. "But for some of these children, these are the only meals they will get."

    Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.