The old Washington saying "if you're not at the table, you're on the menu" hits close to home for those living in or near poverty this election cycle. Despite the fact that nearly one in six people are living in poverty and about a third of our population is scraping by on low incomes, we've heard virtually nothing about poverty from either campaign, except a misguided attempt from the Romney camp to discredit the Obama administration on welfare waivers, a baseless claim that fact checkers on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged to be false.
We need a national conversation on poverty in America, but we need the right people at the table. It needs to be a conversation rooted in the experiences of the true poverty experts -- families who struggle every day to stretch their paychecks far enough to put food on the table, pay for childcare, and make the rent.
Maybe then, stories like Julie's would inject some reality into our policy debates, informing our understanding of the challenges facing struggling families and the viability of possible solutions. Julie is a single mother of three in Des Moines, Iowa who works at a nonprofit agency and is also pursuing her education full time. Julie qualifies for the earned income tax credit, which reduces the tax liability of low-wage working families with children, and the child tax credit, which goes to families with children. With the refund she has received from these credits in recent years, Julie has been able to put a down payment on a used car she uses to get to work, pay medical bills, and save for her children's education.
Julie is not alone. I have seen and heard firsthand how such assistance helps families make ends meet. This tax season, I served as a volunteer tax preparer in Washington, D.C. Through the IRS's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, volunteers are trained to prepare taxes for free for low-income families and adults. As volunteers, we help clients access the tax credits and refunds to which they're entitled.
The clients I met had a lot in common. Many of them were supporting their own children as well as raising their nieces or nephews and caring for someone with a disability or an elderly loved-one, all on income from one or more low-wage jobs. One disabled woman came in exhausted after having worked the night shift as a janitor and was on her way to her second job at a drugstore after I filed her return.
Despite their meager incomes, several clients I met gave generously to their places of worship and to community organizations helping the vulnerable. Those who received a refund from the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit said they planned to use the money to pay bills, buy groceries, and support their children.
Thank goodness for the tax credits and the safety net programs that help millions make ends meet. It's hard to imagine where families and children in need would be without them. The earned income tax credit is now the largest federal antipoverty program; it alone kept 6.3 million people out of poverty in 2010, including 3.3 million children.
It's particularly troubling, then, to see how much people living in and near poverty have at stake this November and how rarely their everyday challenges are addressed by policymakers and the media.
Under a Romney administration, the poor and near poor would certainly be "on the menu." Gov. Romney's endorsement of his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan says it all. Instead of investing in programs that lift all Americans up, the Ryan budget would slash vital services like nutrition assistance, early childhood education, and more -- all so we can give more tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. To make matters worse, Gov. Romney would let the improvements to the earned income and child tax credits that have lifted 1.6 million people out of poverty since 2009 expire at the end of this year.
This isn't just a reflection of the ticket's upside-down priorities. It also would be the new reality millions of families in or near poverty would actually have to live with, both at tax time and throughout the year.
With an inclusive debate, our nation can make progress on poverty in a way that doesn't just serve political ends, but would actually improve the lives of everyday people beyond the beltway. With everyone at the table, we can enable families and children to achieve the American Dream.
To that end, Half in Ten, in partnership with the Coalition on Human Needs, is collecting firsthand video and written testimonials about how programs such as food aid, job training, and tax credits have helped low-income families make ends meet and work toward the American Dream. We share these stories with the press and members of Congress.
This fall, I urge you to share your story about how these programs have helped you, your community, or those you serve with the candidates, the media, and even with your neighbors and friends.
We can't let families like Julie's down. We need to bring the poor to the table.
Katie Wright is a Research Associate with the Half in Ten campaign at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.