“Families who are scraping by every day see no real relief in sight,” Amanda Greubel, an Iowa mother of two, told a roomful of US senators Thursday morning. “We hear that corporate welfare continues and CEOs get six-figure bonuses at taxpayer expense, and we look across the kitchen table at our families eating Ramen noodles for the third time this week…. We know that money talks around here, and that means you don’t hear us.”

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions heard Greubel’s pleas during a hearing called “Stories from the Kitchen Table: How Middle Class Families are Struggling to Make Ends Meet.” As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee three floors below, outlining American plans for “longer-term sustainable development that focuses on spurring growth” in Afghanistan, senators on the HELP Committee heard about the urgent need for “nation building here at home,” as President Obama put it in his address to the country last night.

Greubel and her husband work for the public school system in DeWitt, Iowa, and both had their salaries reduced during recent state spending cuts. She tried to convey to the committee the real effect it had on her family. “The loss of that income required a complete financial, emotional, and spiritual overhaul in our family,” Greubel testified, describing shopping trips to Goodwill stores and discount supermarkets, and cold cereal for her children at dinnertime. “We did everything that all the experts said we should do, and yet we’re still struggling. When you work as hard as we have and still sometimes scrape for the necessities, it really gets you down.”

The committee also watched a short video by documentarian Susan Sipprelle, who is working on project called “Over 50 and Out of Work,” which tells stories from people facing unemployment after long careers but before retirement. It was similar to this version, posted on the project website:

Jared Bernstein, a progressive economist who until recently worked in the White House on Vice President Biden’s economic team, also testified and presented some data behind what he called the “middle class squeeze”—the notion that middle-class families are having an increasingly difficult time achieving things like home ownership, college education and healthcare coverage. He noted that worker productivity has grown at much higher rates in recent decades than real median family incomes, and that income inequality has dramatically increased over that same period.

It was overall an unusual display in the Senate, as stories of economic hardship were brought directly into official hearing rooms. Senator Tom Harkin, who chairs the committee, appeared visibly distressed during some of Greuber’s testimony and later called it “one of the most eloquent statements about the plight of the middle class and what’s happening to families out there that I’ve ever heard.” (You can watch her testimony here, at the fifty-one-minute mark).

But the hearing also had a feeling of futility to it. The Senate is mired in gridlock, and earlier this week wasn’t even able to pass reauthorization of the Economic Development Act, which would have provided grants to economically distressed areas to generate job growth. The reauthorization enjoyed wide bipartisan support in the past. 

That gridlock and indifference was on full display Thursday, as only one Republican showed up for the hearing—Senator Michael Enzi, who essentially had to appear, since he is the ranking member on the committee.  (Five Democrats attended).

Enzi invited the operator of an offshore drilling operation machinery company in Louisiana, Thomas Clements, to testify before the committee. Clements said that 85 percent of his business disappeared after the post–Deepwater Horizon drilling moratorium, and in Enzi’s version of events, it is federal regulation that’s killing jobs and putting pressure on the middle class. “On the Gulf Coast, many of the thousands of jobs that were supported by the offshore drilling industry are simply gone due to the moratorium, permit and bureaucratic delays on off-shore drilling in the Gulf,” he said.

Clements had a genuine tale of hardship, but more drilling permits aren’t going to solve the “middle class squeeze.” Amidst all the moving testimony Thursday, it wasn’t clear what will. 

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