Automatic spending cuts known as the "sequester" go into effect today.  The cuts are automatic, arbitrary, and painful to federal programs supported by both sides of the aisle.  Sequestration is a combination of mandatory cuts in discretionary and defense spending that resulted from the debt ceiling deal last summer.

The cuts are to take place over a nine year period from 2013-2021.  This sequester deal was passed by Congress in August 2011, as part of the Budget Control Act (BCA), and signed by President Obama; the cuts were considered so severe and undesirable that Congress would be forced to reach a deficit reduction deal to and avert them.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Low-income women and women of color are going to be the hardest hit by the $85.4 billion in cuts, yet most Americans seem to be unsure of how these cuts to the federal budget will impact them directly.  While the media focuses on long lines at the airport as a result of the sequestration cuts, here are five ways the sequester could affect you:

1. Less Support For Small Businesses

"Small businesses are the biggest job creator and despite the recession they were actually starting to do a bit better,” says Tara Dowdell a small business owners and Founder and Principal of Tara Dowdell Group, a strategic consulting and marketing firm. The sequester cuts will decrease the number of government contracts awarded to small businesses and there will also be less spent on research that these companies rely upon. Dowdell says  “I don’t think people realize what an important role government plays in the lives of small business owners.  The Small Business Association makes loans available to small businesses and many small business owners receive contracts from government.  Even if they don’t contract directly from government, often times they are subcontractors.  The financial security of these small business owners will be in jeopardy as a result of sequestration cuts.  The last thing we want to do in this fragile economy is to put more economic pressure small business owners who are already struggling.  The sequester will take small business owners backwards and we cannot afford those kinds of losses.”

2. Decreased Funding For Programs That Aid Women

Women will be one of the hardest hit groups as a result of the sequester.  Domestic violence programs will be cut by $29 million, public sector jobs (the majority of which are held by women) will be cut, and $86 million will be cut from women’s health programs including cancer screenings and other programs which provide prenatal care to low-income women.

Mothers will see cuts to programs that provide basic nutrition for their children, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC.  WIC serves low-income women who are pregnant, breastfeeding and/or those who have just given birth, as well moms with children younger than 5, and is expected to be cut by $543 million. This will impact nearly 450,000 people of color. The Low Income Heat Energy Assistance Program will also face major budget cuts. Thankfully, TANF (welfare), Social Security, SNAP (food stamps) and Medicare are exempt from sequestration.

3.  Decreased Education Spending

People of all ages and at all stages of their education will be impacted by the sequester.  In remarks on February 14th, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan said, “Education is the last place to be reducing our investment as the nation continues to climb out of the recent recession and [works] to prepare all of its citizens to meet the challenges created by global economic competitiveness in the 21st century.  Indeed, I can assure you that our economic competitors are increasing, not decreasing, their investments in education, and we can ill afford to fall behind as a consequence of the indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts that would be required by sequestration."

Sequestration cuts education programs by nearly $424 million.  That impacts early childhood education programs, Head Start, arts programs, and special education programs.  President of American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten says, “[O]ur classrooms will become more crowded; low-income children and children with special needs will lose the services and support they need to succeed in the classroom; hundreds of thousands of children and families will go hungry; tens of thousands of children will be kicked out of Head Start and other early education programs.” 

The good news is that if you are a college or graduate student, Pell Grants are exempt, but the sequester could impact your ability to receive a work-study grant or a supplemental educational opportunity grant.  These cuts to higher education loans total nearly $86 million.

4.  Less FDA Food Inspectors

As frightening as it sounds, the sequester also cuts the budget of the Department of Agriculture by nearly $2 billion.  Those cuts will force the FDA to furlough nearly a third of their employees, including all of their food inspectors.

In many cases, this means that meat and poultry plants that require approval of food inspectors before processing anything will be forced to shut down and lay off their workers.  Not only will the food in American grocery stores be less safe, it will also cost more because of shortages caused by these factory closings.

5.  Fewer Jobs, Smaller Unemployment Benefits

Right now nearly 3.8 million Americans are receiving long term unemployment benefits.  The sequester will cut these monthly benefits by 9.4%.  The long term unemployed will see an average of $450 less in their payments over time.

The sequester will also increase the number of Americans who are unemployed.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says, “This is completely irresponsible. It's mindless. Most people don't even know what the word sequester means. Sequestration equals unemployment.”

Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and soon-to-be attorney.  You can follow her on Twitter @ZerlinaMaxwell.