On Capitol Hill, there are two ways that people tend to talk about the sequester -- a slate of automatic federal spending cuts that are difficult but necessary, or a blunt tool that will inflict tremendous suffering.
But a growing chorus of researchers, political analysts and economists say that the cuts are poised to inflict particularly intense pain on people of color and impede the country’s ability to prosper as these populations grow.
“What you will keep hearing is that it is a little to early to know exactly what is going to happen. And I agree. But I think there are certainly a number of areas where you can expect a disproportionate impact on black and Latino families," said Margaret C. Simms, a fellow at the Urban Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., and director of its Low-Income Working Families Project. "What we are talking about is taking the existing inequalities this country has and really making them worse, much worse.”
If the Obama administration and Congress fail to reach an agreement to modify the slate of automatic spending cuts, as much as $900 million could be cut from Head Start, a federal early education program aimed at helping low-income children keep pace with their peers in school, according to a February analysis by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Losing those funds means that as many as 700,000 children in need of Head Start services may not be able to enroll. A full 60 percent of children enrolled in Head Start are black, Latino or Asian.
Young students would not be the only ones to suffer. The analysis found that the sequester would also lead to about $3 billion in cuts to other areas of education, including college financial aid, funding for students who are enrolled in programs to learn English, and funding for schools that serve a large number of low-income students.
All told, the Center for American Progress estimates that 9.3 million students would have access to less funding or fewer educational services needed to complete their education. This could lead to an ever higher rate of student debt among African Americans and Latinos -- in the 2007-'08 academic year, 81 percent of African Americans and 67 percent of Latinos with a bachelor’s degree graduated with student debt, compared to 64 percent of their white peers, according to a 2012 study by the center.
Another $543 million would be cut from the Women Infant and Children Program, a nutrition assistance program that helps low-income mothers with children under the age of 5 pay for healthy food, juices, milk and other vitamin-rich items thought to be essential for early-life development, the analysis found.
As the sequester forces agencies to trim their payrolls, black workers also stand likely to lose a critical source of jobs, income and health insurance, said Steven Pitts, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education. In 2011, the most recent year for which detailed federal data is available, 20 percent of employed black adults worked for federal, state or local government agencies.
The cuts will also trim long-term unemployment benefits, which could disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos. Thirty-eight percent of unemployed blacks and 28 percent of Latinos have been out of work for a year or more, according to federal data.
“If you look at the programs that are going to be cut, people of color disproportionately use them,” said Daniella Gibbs Leger, senior vice president for American Values and New Communities at The Center for American Progress. “Inside the beltway and in the upper middle class sections of America we may not see them or feel them, but there will be real people who experience the sequester in some very real ways.”
Gibbs Leger dismissed the argument that the cuts show people of color are overdependent on the social safety net. Instead, she said, the country needs to focus on why race and ethnicity remain so closely linked with poverty and how that can be changed with public policy.
The sequester is also slated to cut funding for medical research, community health centers that provide care to low-income and uninsured individuals and programs that cover the costs of child vaccinations. These cuts will disproportionately affect people of color, said Brian D. Smedley, vice president and director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ Health Policy Institute.
"Sequestration results in significant cuts to very important programs that again, in my view, are likely to widen the health gaps rather than close our fiscal hole," Smedley said.
Simms took that one step further, saying that sequestration's effects on people of color will negatively affect the entire nation.
"The absolute bottom line is this: because half of the children born in this country in 2010 were minorities, children are increasingly coming from less advantaged families. In the absence of public investment, they will likely not achieve their potential," she said. "And, given what's happening with our population, that’s not important just to them and their families, but to the country as a whole."