As damaging sequester continues, Congress goes on 5-week vacation

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), center, arrives at a July news conference at which he criticized House Republicans over the sequester. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images / July 23, 2013)

When the program is properly funded and operated, its teachers and social workers known as family advocates look out for family problems that demand help, such as unemployment, alcoholism and mental illness. Director Keesha Woods says that budget cuts mean family advocates' caseload may double to 150 — and obviously that's not counting the families that won't be covered at all because their children didn't get slotted in.

"When we start removing the ladders that allow families to climb out of poverty," Woods said, "then we are allowing the system to be perpetuated."

The other hole being torn in the safety net for vulnerable families is unemployment insurance. The sequester is gouging an average 15% out of the weekly checks for unemployed persons nationwide, according to calculations by the National Employment Law Project. The actual amount varies by how long a state waited to implement the cuts (the longer it held off, the deeper the cut) and how it has applied the reductions. The average cut is $43 a week to the national average benefit of $289.

"That's a bag of groceries," said Maurice Emsallem, the project's Oakland-based policy co-director.

In California, which has more people on unemployment than any other state, the reduction of 17.7% is applied to new applicants and those moving to the next tier of coverage — for example, moving from the first 10 weeks of benefits to the next 13 weeks. The reduction to the average weekly benefit of $303 comes to $54. If the sequester continues to the end of the year, the cuts will hit more than 500,000 people.

To any sensible person, all this would point to a serious social crisis, concentrated among the nation's most vulnerable populations — and that's not even counting the cuts documented across the country to Meals on Wheels, literacy education and federally funded scientific research.

So what was Congress up to in the weeks before it went on vacation? The House passed a dead-on-arrival measure repealing the Affordable Care Act (which of course benefits lower-income Americans) for the 40th time. The lawmakers debated a bill, introduced by the majestically useless Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), to name all coastal waters out to the U.S. 200-mile jurisdictional limit after Ronald Reagan.

All the rest has been gridlock, grandstanding and gutter politics. There's some debate over whether this Congress has been the worst in history or merely one of the bottom two, but either way it's bad enough. For this they deserve a vacation that the average European would envy?

So the sequester stands, with very uncertain prospects for its being lifted in the fall. The 535 statesmen and stateswomen of Capitol Hill will be hitting the golf course and lazing on the beach while millions of their constituents worry about how to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

The test of a civilized society is that it looks out for its neediest members. With this Congress in place, we're failing that test.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.

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