Remember all the big arguments of the 2012 presidential election? One of the key disagreements between the candidates was about how to get more money into the hands of more Americans. The election ended, but the argument didn't.
The debate happening now in Congress over the "fiscal cliff" has sometimes seemed like just another phase of that bitter campaign. If nothing changes, we will see a combination of tax increases and budget cuts that could stall our nation's recovery and hurt families just digging out from the economic wreckage.
We went from being gang-tackled by election-season attack ads aimed at our votes, to being carpet-bombed by holiday-season jingles aimed at our pocketbooks. For a family still struggling to pay the rent, a spending spree is a distant hope.
I was at the White House this month along with other community leaders from California to talk about a solution. There's one thing everyone agreed: we need to talk about what severe cuts to government services would really look like. People from groups large and small talked about what more budget cuts and tax increases could mean for people struggling to hold on to their homes or just dusting off their suit for their first job interview in a year.
The message is being heard loud and clear and gaining momentum around the country. The White House has launched a campaign -- MY2K -- to highlight the importance of extending tax cuts for the middle class that average $2,200 per family. That's where most Americans are focused, living month to month. The MY2K campaign has focused Americans on the real effects.
But there's another group, those living at the poverty threshold of $23,000 per year for a family of four. They stand to lose big if Congress can't agree on a solution. Because if social programs are cut further as a result of the "sequester," and if unemployment goes back up as a result of other automatic cuts in spending, the ones left holding the pink slips will be the families who can afford it the least.
We need a campaign to speak for them. I call it #MY$23K.
As the president of a justice organization that helps people who are often living at or even well under the poverty line, I can give a few examples of how these 46.2 million Americans -- MY$23K -- could be devastated if a solution to the fiscal cliff isn't found in the coming weeks.
For a family of four with two children making a household income of $20,000, no Congressional action means $1,000 out of the family's pocket as a result of the reduction in the Child Tax Credit. Because the tax credit is "refundable," a family can actually receive the credit even if it exceeds the amount of federal income tax they owe. The Child Tax Credit lifted 1.3 million children out of poverty in 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Deep cuts to unemployment benefits could especially hurt people living near the poverty line, as well as Latinos, military veterans, and African Americans who still suffer higher unemployment. While national unemployment has dropped to 7.7% in October, 10% of Latinos, 12% of military veterans, and 13% of African Americans are without a job. Read the report here.
Job training programs also stand to take a $500 million hit, according to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. These programs help adults and young people, and Americans age 16-24 would be deeply affected. According to the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Census, 18.5% of Latinos age 16-24 and a stunning 29% of veterans age 18-24 are unemployed.
The real fix for these Americans could come from actually paying for programs that level the playing field. That includes workforce development, job training, and those aimed at the unemployed.
It also includes legal services, one area that can make a major difference for people at the poverty line. As a New York Times op-ed recently noted:
"Millions of Americans face eviction every year. But legal aid to the poor, steadily starved since the Reagan years, has been decimated during the recession. The result? In many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys and 90 percent of tenants are not. This imbalance of power is as unfair as the solution is clear."
The solution? Give legal representation to people in high-stakes eviction cases, as we do in some Los Angeles eviction cases.
Another #MY$23K area that would pay major dividends would mean connecting underwater homeowners with housing counselors and legal services to help them keep their home or make the tough decision to walk away and preserve their credit.