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Budget cuts would hit hard in communities of color

Gov. Chris Gregoire at a Langley rally during the 2008 campaign, when political winds were blowing in favor of Democrats. Credit: Hotshot977/Wikimedia Commons

SEATTLE – Darasanvanh Kommavongsa, a Laotian single mother of two who lives in the Yesler Terrace neighborhood, worries that her daughters, Genisis and Allyah, will lose their food assistance and Apple Health for Kids. Their future hangs in the balance as lawmakers deliberate about the biennial budget in Olympia.

“Recent budget cuts have put at risk what little we have,” said Kommavongsa. “I myself have already been cut off of assistance from the State Food Assistance Program, and it is hard enough being a single mother. Now I’m worried about how to put food on the table for my two girls.”

Shaunte Powell, whose son was born with a hole in his heart, is devastated that she has been cut off from state programs. “Lawmakers need to protect people not corporations, especially people of color who have been hit especially hard. Our communities have suffered enough.”

With the release of a recent report, “The Color of Cuts: The Disproportionate Impact of Budget Cuts on Communities of Color in Washington State”, the Washington Community Action Network is sounding an alarm about Washington state’s biennial budget and its corrosive impact on the state’s communities of color.

Highlighting new data from the 2010 Census, the report projects how Asian, Latinos, African Americans, and other communities would be affected under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposals. Failure to assess the impact of anticipated 2011-2013 budget cuts on communities of color will increase existing racial and economic disparities in our state, the report states.

Since the report came out, House Democrats have presented a somewhat revised budget but it remains heavy on the kind of service cuts Gregoire proposed.  The Senate is expected to unveil its own proposals next week. Both houses of the legislature and Gregoire must come to a budget agreement by April 24 for lawmakers to complete their work in the regular session.

Jill Mangaliman, the report’s author, hopes that heightened public awareness of those disparities can lead to fruitful dialogue among lawmakers. “In the legislature and in mainstream media, there has been a lack of discussion of how budget cuts are disproportionately affecting people of color and immigrants,” she said. “Race matters.”

Other community leaders agree. “In order to eliminate racial disparities in our state, lawmakers must consider how their decisions affect all communities,” said Dorry Elias-Garcia, executive director of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition. “With Washington becoming more diverse, eliminating programs that help people of color stay healthy and thrive undercuts our long-term economic success as a state.”

Community groups representing communities of color, immigrants, labor, faith-based groups, and social justice organizations released the report at a March 15 news conference at the International Community Health Services Clinic (ICHS), which serves a predominantly immigrant Asian American community and already has suffered cuts.

Endorsed by 64 community organizations, Mangaliman’s report is based on exhaustive research and analysis. “Communities of color and immigrants have grown steadily in the past 10 years, according to the latest census statistics. Building on work from the Racial Justice Report Card, we started reaching out to community partners and allies to create a tool that analyzes the budget through a racial justice lens.”

Washington state’s projected budget shortfall for the 2011-2013 biennial budget is now estimated at $5 billion, but because of recent anti-tax initiatives and previous cuts, the options for closing the gap are far more limited, the new report says.

The report notes that immigrant communities are bearing the brunt of the governor’s proposal to eliminate or cut programs that serve immigrants and refugees. They include the New Americans program, naturalization services, medical interpreter services, children’s health care, refugee services, state only food stamps, and health coverage for immigrants through the Basic Health program.

“Roughly 55 percent of our patients on Basic Health have lost coverage and half of patients who relied on adult dental health services have lost coverage except for emergency care,” said Teresita Batayola, ICHS executive director. “Budget cuts are devastating our patients and our communities.”

To add insult to injury, many of those non-English-speaking immigrant patients, who were recently notified that their Basic Health benefits were eliminated, required assistance from clinic staff to translate their notification letters and file their appeals to the state.

As the health of individuals directly affected by the cuts decreases, Washington will see an increase in health disparities by income, race, and gender, the study reports. Under Gregoire’s proposals, health care programs that are targeted for reduction or complete elimination include eligibility reduction in Apple Health for Kids, which currently provides coverage for 27,000 immigrant children, the great majority of whom are those of color.

In addition, the cuts would eliminate and drastically curtail the Basic Health Plan, an action that would deal a devastating blow to low-income people of color. Budget cuts also would undermine the Disability Lifeline, which will hinder health care access and be felt disproportionately by African Americans and Native Americans.

The governor’s biennial budget would cripple long-term care, which provides assisted care for 8,100 clients with a disability or chronic illness, 58 percent of whom are people of color, and cost more than 30,000 jobs. The cuts would diminish maternity support services and put at risk access to prenatal and infant care for 65,000 pregnant women and their children.

Finally, medical interpreter services for more than 24,000 limited English-speaking Washington residents would be eliminated altogether. State Food Assistance Program, which now provides access to food for more than 30,000 immigrant and refugee families, would be slated for severe cuts.

The House Democrats’ budget makes a number of changes, such as preserving Apple Health, reducing the planned cuts for the Basic Health Plan, and providing some housing assistance to make for cuts in the Disability Lifeline. But those proposals and others will be subject to possible changes or compromises with the Senate and the governor.

The report details the budget impacts on Washington state’s non-discrimination laws, which are among the toughest in the nation. Without programs such as New Americans and the Naturalization Program, thousands of immigrants and refugees will continue to lack the rights and safeguards of U.S. citizenship and be denied access to full participation in our society, the report states.

Eliminating programs such as Refugee Employment Services will affect the ability of thousands of people of color to attain and maintain economic stability for their families and contribute to the state’s economy, the report states. Eliminating or consolidating state ethnic commissions, such as the Office of Asian American and Pacific Islander Affairs, will further weaken advocacy for ethnic communities.

The Color of Cuts report urges legislators to pursue budget solutions rooted in promoting racial equity in Washington. Among its recommendations, the report calls for lawmakers to reject cuts to social safety-net programs. Those cuts would have negative impacts, intentionally or unintentionally, on immigrant communities and communities of color.

In addition legislators are urged to reject policy proposals that widen racial or economic inequality and support proposals that bring greater transparency and accountability to tax exemptions. As well, the report urges lawmakers to consider proposals to raise revenue in support of vital public services for all.

“At a time when the demand for state services is increasing as a result of the national recession, cuts to programs that serve the most vulnerable in our state must be done so with great caution,” Mangaliman writes. “The current wave of unprecedented cuts to health care, education, protections for our most vulnerable and other essential public services require that our elected officials focus on real solutions.”

Their ultimate goal should be to eliminate racial disparities in Washington state, she said. “The governor and state legislature can and should mitigate the impact of budget cuts on people of color by exploring all options for possible cuts and by aggressively seeking new revenue sources.”

“Lawmakers should review and eliminate outdated tax loopholes as a way to promote racial equity and prevent undue harm to communities of color. The state currently has 567 tax breaks on the book that cost taxpayers billions of dollars every year. Yet the legislature has reviewed only 17 percent of them to see if they are meeting their intended purpose,” Mangaliman said.

“In order to make government more accountable and transparent, we need legislators to review and sunset these tax breaks should they fail to create jobs or meet other important intended goals.”

To citizens like Darasanvanh Kommavongsa, the policy decisions that lawmakers are weighing in Olympia will likely have grave consequences. “I don’t want my children going to bed with a stomach ache because they are hungry or don’t have enough to eat. I’m so afraid of what will happen if many more immigrant families are cut off from social programs.”

This story is adapted from the International Examiner. Reprinted with permission.

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