A boy dirt bikes in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood. (AP Photos/Dan Loh)
Throughout these budget talks, the Obama administration has projected an image that it is open to good ideas from anyone, and interested in the prosperity of everyone.
So Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein had his day at the White House along with thirteen other corporate heads. The same is true for a group of small-business owners as well as some labor leaders and progressive groups. And certainly President Obama has surrounded himself with middle-class families throughout these fiscal negotiations.
But there is an omission from the president’s rounds—one that is all the more glaring since this group of people is arguably more vulnerable than anyone to any final budget decisions: low-income Americans who are struggling to climb up from the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
When is their White House meeting? Where is their place at the table?
Surely, this Administration wants to send a message that this White House is open to all Americans. More importantly, it no doubt recognizes that lower-income Americans are working just as hard at their jobs, trying just as hard to create opportunities for their children, and wanting just as much to improve their communities, as are Americans who have more resources.
It is one thing for the president to meet with advocates—and I have the greatest respect for antipoverty advocates and believe in the depth of their knowledge and the ideas they have to offer. But giving lower-income people the opportunity to tell their own stories—in their own words—can lead to insights and ideas that aren’t necessarily reached through secondhand accounts, and rarely permeate the inside-the-beltway bubble.
As we move into the next phase of fiscal talks, vital programs like Social Security, Medicaid, housing, Head Start, childcare, energy assistance, and nutrition aid for pregnant women and children will all be debated. This is the moment for the president to demonstrate that he is reaching out to all Americans, not just those with political clout.
Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that Republican “attacks that disparage or demonize programs for low-income and vulnerable Americans may escalate in the weeks ahead” in an effort to justify deep cuts. I’m sure those attacks won’t be limited to the programs, but will also target the people who participate in them.
One way to break through the stereotypes, the demonization, the noise, is by simply giving people the opportunity to tell their own stories—and by the president making it clear that he won’t stand idly by as people are slandered during a budget debate.
Some will say that a White House meeting with low-income Americans won’t have any effect on a final deal, and they might be right. Or maybe it would have a ripple effect that is impossible to anticipate.
Either way, people having a place at the table matters—especially people who are regularly treated as less than by the media, their employers, and politicians.
President Obama has a real opportunity to demonstrate to the country and to Congress that in his vision for America, everyone has a voice, and everyone is worth fighting for.
For more on poverty and Beltway policy, read Greg Kaufmann's analysis of the "fiscal cliff" deal.