Opinion: How the Looming Fiscal Showdown Will Affect Young Women of Color

Women, particularly women of color, made their voices heard this past election. According to exit polls, 53 percent of the voters in the 2012 elections were women, and they overwhelmingly supported President Obama. Women of color, particularly Latinas and black women, supported Obama by significant margins. Women and voters of color played a critical role, but their interests may not be well served if Democrats and Republicans do not unite and compromise during the looming "fiscal cliff."

The United States is less than two weeks from an economic crisis that has the potential to send us into another recession. The fiscal cliff, a term used to describe several simultaneous events--including the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and Obama's payroll-tax cuts, as well as the implementation of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration--will severely affect women and young people of color.

The reality is that women, particularly women of color, are most at risk of suffering financially if no deal is reached by the end of the year. For those living at the intersections of race and gender, economic matters are particularly challenging. For these women, the biggest impact will be cuts to educational funding and women's health services.

Young women of color have a lot to gain from investments in education--and a lot to lose from cuts to it. Sequestration would mean less money for students, teachers, and schools. Funding for critical education programs like federal work study programs and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants would be cut, as well as funding for programs that help first-generation college-goers gain access to education. Programs that have disproportionately benefited young women and students of color are in jeopardy of seeing severe cuts.

The lack of access to financial aid for people of color will further exacerbate the student debt rates in these communities. Approximately 25 percent of women of color have student debt, and nearly 50 percent of women of color have credit-card debt to pay for basic necessities, thereby endangering financial security and economic mobility.

Cuts to educational funding, coupled with high unemployment rates among young women of color, will be cutting students off at their knees. In 2010, among young women ages 18 to 24, one out of four African-Americans and nearly one out of five Latinas were unemployed.

Cuts to vital women's health services that women of color rely on are also on the chopping block. Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act are in danger of facing severe cuts under sequestration. Currently one in 10 women relies on Medicaid for her health care needs. Hispanics account for 29 percent of Medicaid enrollees, and African-Americans account for 20 percent. For women, Medicaid can mean the difference between getting cancer screenings and birth control or going without care.

The Affordable Care Act is also at risk for significant cuts. Already, more than 45 million women have received preventive care, such as lifesaving cancer screenings, well-woman exams, and Pap tests with no co-pay under the Affordable Care Act; and under the law, access to affordable health insurance will become available for the nearly 13 million women of reproductive age who will be newly eligible for insurance coverage. More than 1.2 million young people of color (ages 19 to 25) acquired health insurance through the ACA.

Women of color are a strong voting bloc, one that comes out in steadily increasing numbers. As a nation we need to consider what values we're basing our decisions on. It's crucial that our solutions include the wealthy paying its fair share and not place the burden on the backs of those most vulnerable.

And that includes young women of color. This community would be among the hardest hit by sequestration, with cuts that would affect their daily lives and those of their families. It's clear that the electorate sent Congress a clear message on the economy. Congress needs to protect the people who elected them to office by voting the right way--avoid the fiscal showdown with a balanced-budget agreement and protect the interests of all Americans.

Sophia Kerby is the special assistant for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.