Do you know what sequestration means?
“I have no idea.”
“What the actual word means? No, but I know what it refers to: the budget cuts that are coming.”
And those were just a few responses from Bostonians who took the time to respond to the question. Most of the more than three dozen people who were asked — about two-thirds — listened long enough to hear the word “sequestration.” Then, headphones were shoved back into ears, cigarettes desperately needed smoking, appointments had to be kept, and conference calls had to be made — on cellphones in the middle of a shopping plaza.
Maybe it is the word, usually preceded by the phrase “so-called,” and what it stands for — across-the-board federal spending cuts set to take effect Friday in the country’s latest fiscal emergency — that cause eyes to glaze over.
Sequestration is just the latest down-to-the-wire, fasten-your-seat-belts federal financial precipice that has left many Americans scratching their heads in bewilderment. (Think: debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff fiasco.)
“The rational have stopped paying attention,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Because the budget-crisis-of-the-moment always seems to end in resolution, even if only temporarily, people, she said, think, “They’ll figure it out. I have to pay my bills. Visa’s due when Visa says.”
It all sounds so nebulous that people consumed with the day-to-day rhythms of their lives do not have time to figure it out. Besides, the two factions that seem constantly at odds are bickering yet again about the country’s finances, which, O’Brien said, causes people to tune out even more.
There are real implications to the American public if these cuts go through, but, she said, “We have a politic right now where everything is he-said, she-said. It feels like a political game. The chattering class pays attention because they’re paid to pay attention.”
Walking her two dogs through Boston Common, Margaret Brady said she would like to think that the American public is an educated lot, but when it comes to this subject: “I need a cheat sheet.”
The back and forth over taxes, spending, deficit, debt, fiscal cliff, and now sequestration “almost becomes white noise,” said Brady, a public relations consultant. “It’s like two kids throwing sand at each other in the sandbox.”
“Ridiculous” is how Carol Walker describes the current financial conflict, which she knows has to do with the potentially massive cuts.
Walker, 50, who lives in the Financial District, said she’s tired of the federal government’s inability to collaborate and compromise, which has created yet another political crisis that could hobble important government operations — everything from military readiness to public school teachers to college students’ work-study jobs. “We’re starting to get emergency fatigue,” she said. “I mean, do I think there’s some waste? Yes. [But] too many things are an emergency that just don’t seem like they should be.”
This is more information than 23-year-old Carleigh Baldwin had about the impending reductions. “I have no idea” what sequestration is or what it means for the economy, the second-year law student said.
“You hear a lot of things. ‘Oh, it’s getting better. Oh, it’s getting worse.’ At this point, I don’t know what to believe,” the New England Law School student said, finishing a cigarette at the Back Bay T Station.
“I should be concerned, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on, like finding a job.”
People will not sit up and pay attention until they can locate the direct impact on their lives — loss of job, loss of income, loss of a Head Start spot for a preschooler, loss of vaccines for needy children, loss of meals for seniors — economists and political scientists say.
But it’s not just one thing that will cause public outcry; it must be an accumulation, said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
The comprehensive impact of sequestration will creep up on people, he said.
“It’s virtually impossible to grasp the enormity of this for all but a handful of experts who spend their lives studying something like this,” Widmer said. “For most people who don’t have a direct involvement in federal programs, it’s all sort of a blur.”
All of this is not to say that some people did not know a thing or two about the country’s current economic plight. A few could even define sequestration — sort of.
“Something about cuts, 3 percent cuts to the budget,” said Melissa Buffer, who lives in Roxbury.
“It’s a bunch of federal employees asked not to work for a while to save money,” said Rob Young, who manages a retirement fund for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
But even the informed were not panicked over what this most recent crisis means for them and their families.
As Abu Abdal-Khallaq explained it, people — especially the impoverished — checked out of the federal financial debate long ago because their bottom line does not seem to change regardless of what Washington does.
“This has been going on so long that people are more complacent when they should be more active,” the retired educator and Department of Corrections supervisor said while holding court at the McDonald’s in the Roxbury Mall.
“It’s new terminology for the same old thing.”Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a word was omitted from a quote in an earlier version of this story. The quote from Rob Young should read: “It’s a bunch of federal employees asked not to work for a while to save money.”