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Protesters rally outside the Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago.

‘Jobs, not cuts!’ Protesters rally against spending cuts

by Robyn Murray
Feb 14, 2013


Robyn Murray/MEDILL

Protesters carried a banner illustrating the oversized portion of discretionary spending consumed by the military budget and called for defense to be cut before social services. Sequestration includes deep cuts in defense.



Robyn Murray/MEDILL

Susan Aarup, representing Disabled Americans Want Work Now, said sequestration would devastate programs that she depends on.



Robyn Murray/MEDILL

Nona Young, 64, said she depends on affordable housing for seniors, which could be impacted by sequestration cuts.


On a windy Valentine’s Day outside the Federal Building in downtown Chicago, protesters sang songs, held signs and released heart-shaped balloons into an overcast sky.

“We’re sending a Valentine’s Day message,” shouted Mary Zerkel, a member of Chicago Jobs with Justice, into a megaphone. “We need jobs, not cuts,” she said.

The protesters, who represented a coalition of groups including Stand Up Chicago and Disabled Americans Want Work Now, were rallying against billions of dollars in automatic federal spending cuts that will go into effect March 1 if the U.S. Congress doesn’t reach a deal to stop them.

“If I didn’t have these services, I’d be homeless,” said Nona Young, 64, referring to the senior housing assistance she receives at Hollywood House Apartments in Edgewater. Young called the housing program a blessing and said gutting it would be devastating.

Fellow resident Ann Marie Cunningham, 75, agreed. Cunningham said protecting social services from deep cuts is “a matter of economic justice.”

“I’ve paid into Social Security for 40 years,” she said. “These are earned benefits.”

The spending cuts, also known as sequestration, were negotiated in 2011 as part of a deal between President Obama and GOP leaders to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. The deal was designed to provide bipartisan incentive to reach a long-term budget compromise, but as the deadline loomed and negotiations faltered, the White House and some in Congress have painted a stark picture of its devastating impact.

“It’s going to have a dramatic negative impact on many agencies, equally important on the economy,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday.

Durbin echoed the concerns of President Obama, who says the cuts would cause mass layoffs and cut off vital services to hundreds of thousands of people.

On a lengthy fact sheet released last week, the White House said sequestration would drop 70,000 children off early education programs like Head Start, cut emergency unemployment benefits, and reduce funding for affordable housing, placing 125,000 families at risk of losing their homes.

It would also deny 600,000 people access to food nutrition programs, the White House said.

That’s what brought Tamy Simpson out to the protest. Simpson works for Illinois Hunger Coalition, which signs up students and families for food stamps. She said eligibility for food stamps is already too restrictive, and if the program is cut, thousands of families will not have access to food.

These are not people “living off the system,” Simpson said, adding she sees many middle class families who have lost jobs. “We see people who barely want to talk to us because they’re so ashamed,” she said.

“They don’t want to ask for help, but they have to.”

The protesters carried a box of about 1,200 Valentine’s Day cards to the doors of the federal building, which was locked as they approached. They were addressed to Durbin and fellow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who were not present.

A single person was allowed in the building to speak with the senators’ staffs.

“It was a short meeting,” said Shani Smith, the designated representative. “They were on their way to lunch.”

Sen. Kirk's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but Sen. Durbin's press secretary John Normoyle responded by email late Thursday.

“Senator Durbin shares the group’s concerns over the pending sequestration," Normoyle said, adding Durbin believes in a "balanced approach to reducing our deficit."

"We should be approaching this thoughtfully, cutting waste and including revenue from tax reform to move toward deficit reduction without hurting families and our recovering economy," he said.