The Kitchen Table Politics of the Fiscal Cliff

12/04/2012 08:48 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

We are all watching politicians in Washington negotiate and debate how to avert our economy's free-fall off the fiscal cliff. But for America's middle-class households, it's all about what any deal -- or no deal -- will ultimately cost them in their pocketbooks.

Around the kitchen table, it's profoundly personal and frighteningly real.

For many Americans, the complex conversations around reforming the national tax code and tackling a trillion dollar debt ceiling quickly translate into what they'll eat for dinner, or if they fill up the car today or next week, or if they can buy that coat this winter, or whether their kids can afford to continue college next semester.

Sure, most Americans subscribe to the idea that we may all need to pull our fiscal belts a bit tighter to achieve long-term economic growth. However, the talk around the kitchen table is how any mix of new tax revenue and spending cuts will impact our families, homes, businesses and retirement.

Standing firm on his campaign promises, President Obama has taken his plan to avoid the fiscal cliff and grow the economy -- which includes tax relief on the first $250,000 of family income -- directly to middle-class businesses and communities.

Yet, the clock is ticking and we are still waiting for the pledges of bipartisan compromise to bear concrete results.

Meanwhile, as I talk to people in my community -- parents, grandparents, parishioners, folks in line at the grocery store -- here are themes that keep coming up:

The Middle Class Shuffle

The middle-class shuffle is the balancing act of stretching the dollar as far as it can go. For the typical middle-income family of four on a fixed budget -- making about $50,000 a year -- a hike in marginal tax rates translates as a drop in monthly income of $150 or more.

For many in the middle class, this loss of income equals a monthly heating, gas or prescription drug bill. A desperately needed winter coat or warm boots could be deleted from the household budget, and replaced by a week's worth of groceries.

According to the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of self-described middle-class adults say it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago to maintain their standard of living. Thankfully, our economy's upswing has buoyed optimism. Yet, as politicians on both sides struggle to reach a fiscal cliff deal, our economy potentially faces another serious downturn and middle-class morale a sledge-hammer blow.

Retirement Well-being

Americans in their most productive years pay into Social Security and Medicare with the understanding they'll reap the benefits at a time when -- due to age, health or unforeseen circumstances -- they can no longer work at the same capacity.

So, for many seniors approaching retirement, the debate over entitlement reform lacks compassion. It fuels fears that their earned Social Security and Medicare benefits simply won't be there. And many in their 50's and 60's who are primary caregivers for parents or family members are afraid they will lose the little support that helps them make it through the day.

Small Business Survival

American taxpayers who are small business owners understand the multiplier effect of a middle-class tax increase.

Middle-class spending power, or the lack thereof, impacts both the survival of an individual business and everything connected to it -- related jobs, property values, community stability and ultimately, the heartbeat of the nation. The White House Council of Economic Advisers predicts that if taxes go up on the middle class next year, consumers will spend nearly $200 billion less on things like cell phones, furniture, cars and clothes. That means the fewer customers there are, the less income business owners have to invest back in their companies and less money pumped into the economy.

For middle-class America, the fiscal cliff is not a political drama or a philosophical issue debated in marbled halls. It is about those very tangible family priorities hashed out around the kitchen table.

Can I pay the rent or mortgage this month? Can Mom or Dad sign the kids up for that after-school program or buy that extra notebook for math class? Can the college graduate afford the studio apartment or have to live at home in the basement? Will the senior citizen have enough money to keep their home and live with the security and peace of mind they deserve?

There's so much at stake. It's real. That's why Washington -- on all sides -- must work together and get it right.