One day before $85 billion worth of automatic, across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs kicked in, a panel of five policy experts painted a dire picture of the effects on communities of color, including Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and African Americans.
One specialist, Ellen Nissenbaum, senior vice president for Government Affairs at the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities in Northwest, said sequestration could have been avoided.
"This is absolutely a man-made creation. We didn't ever foresee sequestration which is the victory of their goals," she said of the Republicans in Congress who refused to come to an agreement with President Barack Obama and their Democratic counterparts. "Everyone agreed to 10 years with a hammer. But the hammer is so attractive to some representatives."
The effects of the sequester will not be felt immediately but experts expect it to begin to bite in the next few months.
In 2011, Congress passed a law putting the onus on both parties to agree on a plan to implement $4 trillion in budget cuts. The Budget Control Act of August 2011 required $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts divided equally between domestic and defense programs over the next 10 years. Failure to forge an agreement would trigger an additional $1 trillion in arbitrary budget cuts.
A Super Committee appointed by Obama wasn't able to reach consensus on how to reduce the deficit, which set the stage for a series of bruising battles between the GOP and Democrats on deficit spending and tax hikes.
The arbitrary cuts were designed to be so onerous and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would put their heads together and compromise on a range of budget cuts, close tax loopholes and raise revenue. But partisan politics, political brinksmanship and genuine philosophical differences on the size and scope of government have deepened the divide between both parties.
While conservative Republicans grudgingly agreed to unprecedented budget increases at the end of last year to avoid the "fiscal cliff", they have been adamant about doing anything other than cutting social programs they call entitlement programs.
At an event hosted by the Northwest-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, titled, "The Impact of Sequestration on the Health and Well-Being of Communities of Color", panelists said minority communities who depend on federal assistance programs will be disproportionately affected.
"While most Americans will feel the impact of the sequestration, it will have a devastating effect on communities of color as the budget axe falls on programs that many low-income people rely upon to stay healthy," said Ralph B. Everett, president and CEO of the Joint Center at the March 1 discussion. "To pull the rug out from under them would not be wise. Without investment today, we will pay a higher price down the road."
Brian Smedley, Ph.D., vice president of the Joint Center and director of its Health Policy Institute, said sequestration will cause 600,000 women, infants, and children to lose WIC services, while 70,000 children won't be able to take advantage of Head Start programs. In addition, community health centers will see 900,000 fewer patients, conduct 25,000 fewer cancer screenings and perform 424,000 fewer HIV tests that are covered by funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The proportion of minorities served by each program ranges from 46 to 77 percent, said Smedley.
In the weeks leading up to the March 1 trigger, Obama and various federal agency heads had voiced their concerns about the cuts in a steady drumbeat of doom. Furloughs, budget cuts and delays could cripple Homeland Security, defense and law enforcement. Newly appointed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the $46 billion in cuts will definitely have an impact, but would not be as devastating as some contend, and certainly will not reduce the U.S. military to a second-rate power.
Obama decried the lack of action by Republicans, describing the across-the-board cuts as a meat cleaver decimating social programs when a balanced approach is needed.
"At a time when our businesses have finally begun to get some traction, hiring new workers, and bringing jobs back to America, we shouldn't be making dumb, arbitrary cuts to things that businesses depend on and workers depend on like education and research and infrastructure and defense," he said. "It's unnecessary, and at a time when too many Americans are still looking for work, it's inexcusable."
In a February 22 certification letter from Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi to Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Gandhi noted that the District and the nation has operated under a cloud of uncertainty, with the biggest uncertainty coming from "measures that the federal government might take to reduce federal deficits during an era of austerity that may last for some time."
The Washington metropolitan area is particularly susceptible to sequestration because of the profusion of federal government agencies, defense contractors and ancillary companies and entities that depend on them. About 25 percent of District residents work for the federal government and federal civilian employment accounts for 28 percent of all wages and salaried jobs in the city. In addition, federal contracting produces thousands of jobs and pumps billions of dollars into the local economy.
Nissenbaum said sequestration is one piece of a much larger puzzle of financial challenges.
"What Congress does now sets the precedent, good and bad," she said. "Not tackling long-term debt will jeopardize these programs. We need investments but we cannot do that under these circumstances."
"We need the right mix to stabilize the debt which equals $1.5 trillion on top of what we've already done ... there needs to be a balance in revenues and spending cuts. There need to be no cuts to low-income entitlements and non-defense discretionary programs."
Of the $2.75 trillion in budget cuts to this point, about $1.6 trillion has come from spending cuts, she said, and Republicans insist that any deficit-reduction replacement deal include only spending cuts. Democrats want a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
Sophia Kerby, of the Center for American Progress in Northwest, said Congressional Republicans put the economy in jeopardy during the debt ceiling debates in 2011 and again in 2012. She criticized Republicans for "threatening the economy by risking massive and harmful spending cuts that will hurt the middle class, damage the economy, kill hundreds of thousands of jobs, and harm the most economically vulnerable among us."
Kerby cited deep cuts to long-term unemployment benefits; suspension of workforce development programs; cuts to critical job-creating programs such as the Build America Bonds program, housing assistance, education and other programs; and budget cuts which will mean the loss of federal, state, and local public-sector jobs, which disproportionately employ women and African Americans.
Amber D. Ebarb, of the National Congress on American Indians in Northwest, said sequestration merely adds misery to the desolation that already encompasses these communities.
"We're very worried about the impact of the programs coming down," she said. "This is a major threat to tribal nations. It will limit resources of core services the tribes provide to their people ... we have a growing population with growing needs."