August 2011, Week 3


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Sat, 20 Aug 2011 14:56:06 -0400
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Women and Communities of Color Could Suffer from the
Super 12's Lack of Diversity

By Julie Ajinkya
Center for America Progress
August 17, 2011


Those of us who waited with baited breath to see which
members of Congress would be appointed to the
supercommittee of 12 to find $1.5 trillion in deficit
reduction over the next 10 years are likely unsurprised
at the lack of diversity on the bipartisan
congressional committee. While Republicans failed to
appoint a single female member or member of color, at
least the Democrats selected Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA),
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC), and Rep. Xavier Becerra

Our country is 51 percent female, 13 percent African
American, and 16 percent Hispanic, so it is extremely
disheartening that Sen. Murray will be the only woman
on the panel while Rep. Clyburn is its only African
American member and Rep. Becerra is its only Latino
member (there are no Asian Pacific Islander or Native
American members).

We know that committee members will make important
choices between spending cuts and tax breaks. Women and
communities of color are both populations that rely
disproportionately on safety net programs, but women of
color constitute the most vulnerable population that
relies on these services in this economic climate. This
group currently lacks even a single representative
member on the committee.

But this disappointment with the breakdown of the
committee goes beyond simple dissatisfaction with
parity in representation-it is concern over the great
disconnect between members of this extraordinarily
powerful committee and the communities that will
disproportionately suffer from further cuts.

The committee's lack of diversity reflects Congress's
current composition

The lack of diversity on the joint committee is not
surprising precisely because of the lack of diversity
in Congress overall. Women hold only 17 percent of
congressional seats, with 75 seats in the House and 17
seats in the Senate (ranking the United States 90th in
the world in terms of gender parity in national
legislatures). African Americans comprise only 8
percent of the total membership with 44 seats in the
House, yet they no longer enjoy a single seat in the
Senate after its only African American member, Sen.
Roland Burris (D-IL), retired last year. Hispanics only
make up 6 percent of the total membership, with 29
seats in the House and 2 seats in the Senate. Asian
Pacific Islander members make up 3 percent, with 11
seats in the House and 2 seats in the Senate, and there
is a sole Native American member in the House.

Some critics of parity in representation argue that we
should focus more on experience than gender, racial, or
ethnic characteristics. What is worrying about the lack
of diversity on this committee, however, is precisely
the lack of experience-specifically the majority of
members' lack of familiarity with the critical role
that many programs play in the lives of low-income
communities. This bipartisan committee has been granted
the extraordinary powers of coming up with an
additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions, and we
know that its members are going to be considering
further cuts to discretionary spending as well as cuts
to entitlement programs and revenue increases.

It seems particularly unrepresentative for some of the
wealthiest members of Congress to hold the fate of low-
income communities in their hands. It should surprise
no one that all but one of the six Republican members
of this committee rank in the top half of the House or
Senate in their net worth. In contrast, all but one of
the six Democrats rank near or in the bottom half of
the House or Senate in their net worth, according to
annual tables kept by the Center for Responsive

Consider that information side by side with a recent
Pew study on racial wealth gaps that reveals that
national wealth disparities are currently the largest
they have ever been since the government started
publishing this data 25 years ago. The median wealth of
white households is 20 times greater than that of black
households and 18 times greater than Hispanic

Women and communities of color are disproportionate
beneficiaries of programs that could get cut

The initial round of cuts requires $1 trillion in
discretionary spending cuts that are likely to affect
programs that disproportionately help women and
communities of color the most, such as housing, job
training, education, domestic violence prevention, and
others. But nondiscretionary programs that primarily
benefit women and communities of color are also in
danger in this next round.

Take Medicaid, for example. Nearly 7 in 10 elderly
adults and nearly 8 in 10 nonelderly adults who relied
on Medicaid for assistance in 2007 were women. African
Americans accounted for one in five Medicaid enrollees
in 2009, while Hispanic Americans accounted for one in
four. Both groups were affected disproportionately
during the economic recession, with 28 percent of
African Americans and 38 percent of Hispanic Americans
reporting that they lost their jobs due to the
downturn. Medicaid enrollment increased to cover an
additional 1.4 million African Americans and 2.5
million Hispanic Americans between 2007 and 2009 to
meet growing need due to falling incomes.

Since Medicaid is not a discretionary program it was
safe from the initial round of cuts. And if the Super
12 is unable to cut at least $1.2 trillion by
Thanksgiving, Medicaid will also be spared from the
automatic cuts of $1.5 trillion that get triggered
across the board because it is an exempt safety net

But we know it's at risk in this round-a round where
this remarkably undiverse supercommittee holds
extraordinary power over the health and well-being of a
remarkably diverse group of Americans.

There is good cause to be concerned that a committee
made up of members with little to no experience with
these programs will not understand how critical they
are to millions of Americans. For instance, some think
it unconscionable for a joint committee that is 92
percent male to slash programs that disproportionately
serve and employ women. After all, representation is
about more than one's membership in a gender, racial,
or ethnic group-it's about how that membership shapes
your life experience and your access to health,
employment, education, and wealth.

Women of color need the most help and are the most

Since the great recession has had dire consequences for
women and communities of color, women of color have
been hit particularly hard. For instance, while white
women are paid 77 cents on average for every dollar
earned by a white, non-Hispanic man, African American
women are paid just 62 cents and Latina women only 53
cents. They are the group most unable to save on these
sorts of wages, and it is clear that women of color
will be most hurt by cuts to important safety net

Yet women of color might be the most overlooked
population in the 112th Congress. Of the 90 women
serving in this Congress, 24 (or 27 percent) are women
of color-all serving in the House. Women of color
constitute only 4 percent of the total 535 members of
Congress, though the delegates to the House from
Washington, D.C. (Eleanor Holmes Norton) and the Virgin
Islands (Donna Christensen) are African American and
Caribbean American, respectively.

What might be worth noting, however, is that of the 13
African American women, 4 Asian Pacific Islander women,
7 Latina women, and 2 delegates serving in this
Congress all but 2 Latina representatives are
Democrats. If Republicans only have two women of color
in their entire congressional membership it is
questionable whether they will be able to understand
the needs of this community in order to make important
funding decisions.

If we are going to talk about lack of diversity on this
supercommittee and the deficit reduction's impact on
communities who most rely on safety net programs, women
of color are a key population that is missing
representation on this absurdly powerful joint
committee. Yes, communities of color suffer
disproportionately from cuts to safety net programs, as
do women. But at the nexus of these two populations is
the group that hurts the most-women of color-and this
group lacks a single representative on the committee.

To be sure, women of color at least have allies in the
Super 12. There are members who have been strong on
women's issues, particularly Sen. Murray and Reps.
Becerra and Chris Van Hollen. Rep. Clyburn has also
made clear that he will be using his role on the
committee to push for revenue increases-not just
cuts-to close the wealth gap that disproportionately
hurts low-income communities of color.

While the debate over whether descriptive
representation (when representatives reflect the
demographics of the people they represent) necessarily
leads to substantive representation (when
representatives' commitments correspond to the
positions of constituents) is still unsettled among
political scientists, some research suggests that
women, across different racial and ethnic groups, might
play a larger role in offering said substantive
representation. Yet on a committee that has only one
woman and no women of color it will be that much more
important for its members to step outside of their own
experience and consider how disproportionately harmful
cuts would be for communities other than their own.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst with the Progress
2050 project at American Progress.


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