Why Women and People of Color Should Be Concerned About the Fiscal Cliff Negotiations


Many view the 2012 election as a mandate on the Democrats’ vision for the poor and middle class. Tammy Baldwin, for example, clearly won her Senate seat because she campaigned on two words: middle class. Elizabeth Warren, elected in Massachusetts, has been one of the most forceful advocates for economic justice. And of course, President Obama’s re-election is also validation of his first four years.

Women and non-white voters played a critical role in these victories, but their interests may not be well-served if Democrats do not unite and flex their muscle during the looming “fiscal cliff” negotiations to protect these coalitions. The fiscal cliff is a concocted concept, or at least an exaggerated one, referring to the effective end-date of put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. This law requires an end to Bush era tax cuts, Obama’s payroll tax cuts, and particularly troubling as the National Women’s Law Center points out, extended unemployment benefits, along with sequestration (automatic, across-the-board cuts to a number of federal programs). Negotiations on what these cuts will actually look like are set to begin in earnest this week.

The terms of the Budget Control Act could raise a good amount of revenue, but at what cost? For many of the nation’s women and people of color, the possibility of deep cuts to the unemployment provision and other social programs is particularly disturbing. As of October 2012, the unemployment rate is holding steady at 7.9 percent, with 7.2 percent women unemployed, and a staggering 10 percent of Hispanic Americans and 14.3 percent of African Americans unemployed. It’s clear that women and people of color have had a tougher time regaining their footing in the economy—and cuts to the unemployment extension could exacerbate this.

If no agreement is reached, the emergency unemployment compensation program—costing about $26 billion—would be automatically cut along with a number of other programs.

If all goes according to some Democrats’ current plans, these cuts and other cuts to federal programs will be avoided. Over the past several days Democrats have asserted that cuts to social programs will only take place if there is enough revenue to match savings. For example, on NPR’s Morning Edition last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate, stated that in the fiscal cliff negotiations, any spending cuts must be balanced with tax increases on the wealthy.

“Balance” means different things to different Democrats. Some Democrats, including President Obama, assert that a 3-1 spending cuts to revenue ratio is acceptable. The more liberal wing of the party are concerned that the spending cuts may be too severe: Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa are asserting that any spending cuts should be matched 1-1 with revenue increases.

Harkin (D-IA) also indicated that cutting Medicaid would be off the table—but President Obama at one point did support a near-$100 billion cut to Medicaid.

This is another point of concern for both women and people of color: as of 2011, 11.5 percent of all American women were covered by Medicaid, and 28 percent of African Americans relied on Medicaid, and a high percentage of Hispanic Americans rely on Medicaid as well.

In addition, Moms Rising pointed out that Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal nutrition assistance program for poor pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and their very young children, is among the programs that would face automatic cuts if an agreement is not reached.  

Democrats had much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, in part due to their most critical coalition of voters—women and people of color. To make good on this post-election validation Democrats should stand united for the groups of Americans who need them most.

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Follow Sheila Bapat on twitter: @sheilabapat