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 (D-CA).
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 Politics.
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 households.
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 program.
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 underrepresented
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 programs.
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.