11/30/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Families and Fiscal Cliffs in This Holiday Season

As discussions swirl around Washington on tax rates, entitlement "reform," and discretionary spending cuts, it seems all too easy to forget that real people will suffer if the wrong decisions are made in the next several weeks. If tax burdens remain grossly unfair, monthly income from Social Security is reduced, and programs such as food assistance and medical care are cut back, it will be actual families and not just the economy in the abstract that will plunge over a cliff. In fact, it's easy to argue that the consequences for individuals in need are far more draconian than for the economy as a whole.

I know the threat of that cliff from my own personal experience. When I was growing up, my father died at a young age, leaving my 34-year-old mother to raise three children under nine on her own. Of course his death was an enormous emotional blow to all of us. But it also left our family without its chief breadwinner. I was lucky; my extended family and community helped us through. But the social security survivors' benefits we received were also critical. They helped put food on the table and provided the difference that made my college education possible. That education was not only key to my personal development and success, but has already paid dividends in helping me provide for my own family, and it will pay dividends for members of generations to come. They will stay in the middle class, building a future on the rock of that government program.

Later I saw how such programs propelled that cycle forward on a much bigger scale. As assistant secretary for health and human services and then deputy commissioner of the department of welfare for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the 1980s, I oversaw government programs that made a difference in the lives of thousands, also with implications for the success of future generations. I saw young teenage mothers, homeless women and children, and victims of domestic abuse get the support they needed to find routes out of poverty. It is with that personal and professional background that I look with such alarm on the blithe disregard for the consequences of proposed cuts in federal spending that permeates much of our public discussion.

Today the facts tell the real story. A new US Census report makes clear how cash benefits make a huge difference in the lives of millions of families and children. Just a sample: in 2011, refundable tax credits for working families lifted 8.7 million people out of poverty and reduced the child poverty rate by one-quarter. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) meant that 4.7 million people escaped poverty, lowering the child poverty rate by one-tenth. Unemployment insurance helped 3.4 million; housing subsidies helped 2.8 million; supplemental social insurance benefits (SSI) that go to aged, blind, and disabled people with little or no income helped 3.4 million rise above the poverty line. Regular Social Security benefits lowered poverty rates among retirees by nearly 40 percent. (These figures don't include all recipients, but just those who would otherwise fall below the poverty line.)

Programs on the block that address the consequences of poverty are just as important. For example, cuts to Head Start would deprive 100,000 children of preschool education. Aid to schools serving nearly 2 million disadvantaged and special education students would be cut by $2 billion.

Without a balanced approach to the deficit, all of these cuts will happen despite the fact that nondefense discretionary spending for 2011 was only a tenth of a percent higher than the average level during the Reagan administration and only slightly above the average for the last 50 years. And the projected trends are downward. In other words, nondefense spending has already been cut and will continue at a low level for the foreseeable future. So the calls for further such cuts while taxes on the wealthy remain disproportionately low reveal an ideologically driven agenda, not an agenda for fairness that both Democrats and Republicans expressed support for in exit polls on election day.

Congress has just returned from the Thanksgiving recess. Surely during this holiday season when our thoughts turn to those whose blessings are few, we can have a discussion of what to do in January that keeps the fate of individual families and children in clear focus, based on facts and not inaccurate and glib assumptions. That would indeed be in keeping with the spirit of the holiday season.