How the Sequester Will Affect Communities of Color

The budget cuts known as "the sequester" will hit communities of color particularly hard when they take effect Friday, according to a panel discussion Thursday at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

The sequester, as the cuts are known inside the Beltway, "hampers federal efforts to protect health, prevent disease and disability, and promote opportunity for communities already burdened by risks for poor health," said Brian D. Smedley of the JCPES.

While the poor are shielded from many cuts (Social Security and Medicaid are exempt), the sequester will affect some programs that disproportionately serve people of color. Screenings and tests offered through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be cut, according to the JCPES, as will federal funding for community health centers and early childhood care and education programs, as well as WIC, the program that provides supplemental nutrition for women, infants, and children.

In practical terms, that means CDC would provide 424,000 fewer HIV tests and 25,000 fewer breast and cervical cancer screenings for low-income, high-risk women, the JCPES said, citing a recent House Appropriations Committee report. Federal funding for community health centers would be cut by $120 million, which could mean that 900,000 fewer patients would be served. About 70,000 children would lose access to Head Start, and 600,000 low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and their children could be cut from the WIC rolls.

Because racial and ethnic minorities, who represent 37 percent of the overall U.S. population, disproportionately use those services, panelists worry that those communities will be hit hard by the cuts.

In 2010, nonwhites accounted for 71 percent of those being tested for HIV through the CDC. Between 2006 and 2011, 50.9 percent of those screened for breast and cervical cancers at the centers were nonwhite. Nearly half (48 percent) of those who relied on community health centers in 2011 were nonwhite, as were 71 percent of children who entered Head Start in 2009. More than two-thirds of those enrolled in WIC in 2010 were nonwhite, according to the JCPES.

Friday's cuts — part of the 2011 Budget Control Act — are the result of a failure on the part of legislators to produce a plan to reduce the deficit, said panelist Ellen Nissenbaum of the Center of Budget Policy and Priorities.

The automatic cuts were put in place to act as a hammer of sorts that would require legislatures make hard decisions about spending, government revenue, and the national budget deficit. The committee formed to negotiate a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package failed to reach an agreement in November 2011, which triggered the sequester.

Panelist Priscilla Huang of the Asian and Pacific Islander Health Forum said that people of color should tell legislators about the impact the cuts will have on their communities.

Liany Elba Arroyo of the National Council of La Raza, who was also on the panel, agreed, urging racial and ethnic minorities to call their representatives in Congress and in the Senate.

"The more policy makers hear that regular people are not happy with what's going on, the more they're going to react," she said.