CHICAGO - "These cuts to Medicaid will affect home services that I depend upon," said Susan Aarup from her wheelchair. "I shouldn't have to choose between paying for food and electricity."
Aarup, a member of the disability rights group Disabled Americans Want Work Now (DAWNN), was speaking in Federal Plaza at a rally of seniors, disabled and veterans on Valentine's Day. They had gathered to demand Congress stop the across the board cuts to people's programs scheduled to go into effect March 1.
"Don't break our hearts. Stop in the name of love. We can't have cuts to programs we depend upon," declared Mary Zerkel Peace Building Program coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee.
As part of the action, thousands of postcards were delivered to U.S. Senators Mark Kirk, R. and Richard Durbin, D., demanding no cuts.
The protesters wanted to remind the senators how the cuts, known as sequestration, would devastate the lives of real people and their communities, who are already reeling under federal budget cuts made over the past two years.
In addition to impacting people like Aarup, nearly 4,000 children in Illinois will be cut from Head Start and another 3,348 fewer children will receive services under the Child Care and Development Block Grants.
Deep cuts would mean thousands of state residents will lose Low Income Energy Assistance, Adult Job Training grants, Community Services block grants and other programs that effect every sector of the population.
Zerkel pointed out the cuts would also mean the loss of thousands of jobs in Illinois including over 800 Head Start workers, and over 1000 other jobs in education at a time of high unemployment and economic stagnation.
Planned cuts of Federal aid to the states for Medicaid would heavily impact the program. A 5 percent cut would reduce Illinois's Medicaid budget by nearly $500 million. Another $1.1 billion in business activity would be lost along with over 9,000 jobs.
Stretched out next to Zerkel was a long banner dramatically illustrating the federal discretionary budget. Sixty percent of the banner was colored in red, representing funding for the military. Funding for education, health care and other programs vital to people and communities took up the rest.
"All the programs we need get very little money," said Zerkel. "The Pentagon budget is where we should be cutting. U.S. military spending has doubled since 2001."
The base Pentagon budget has grown from $287 billion to $530 billion, without accounting for the extra costs associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan operations.
Zerkel said the Pentagon didn't even spend the money it was allocated last year. Over $100 billion went unspent in 2012.
"Could that money go to making sure 140 Chicago public schools don't close this year?" asked Zerkel, referring to anticipated closures to be announced next month.
Kristina Tendilla sees the consequences of the economic crisis and budget cuts in her community on a daily basis. Tendilla is an outreach worker at Benton House, a 100 year-old settlement house in the Bridgeport neighborhood.
"These cuts would devastate our community. I am not prepared to turn away any of the 1600 families we have served over the past two years," said Tendilla. "The Benton House food bank has grown exponentially."
The dots between military spending and the economic crisis needs to be connected said Vince Emanuele, a US Marine veteran who served in Iraq.
"The one elephant in the room is military spending," said Emanuele. "Connections must be made between the $53 billion Illinois deficit and the $63 billion the state's taxpayers have sent to the Pentagon since 2001."
Emanuele asked if the federal government loves veterans so much, why are there tens of thousands living on the street?
"We need to talk about the military spending and its impact on health care, education and jobs," he said.
Other groups participating included Chicago Jobs with Justice, Jane Addams Senior Caucus, United Electrical Workers (UE), Move the Money, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), and Arise and Stand Up Chicago.
Photo: Well-run preschool programs like the one pictured in Seattle would be cut if sequestration goes into effect March 1. Ted S. Warren/AP