12/13/2012 06:21 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

On the Edge

This week, we celebrate human rights day. At Heartland Alliance, where I work, we consider this our national holiday. It's the time when we get to celebrate the value of every human being, and to remind ourselves that people have the right to a life free from poverty and to the tools that make it possible -- housing, healthcare, jobs and justice. Nevertheless, these crucial tools and the rights they protect, are in danger thanks largely to the threat posed by the fiscal cliff. It's a perfect storm of variables that threatens to throw our fragile economy back into recession, and families back into desperation. The high stakes debate over federal funding is one worth having, but not at the expense of those who live every day on the precipice -- the poor.

Deciding how to spend public resources comes down to choices that reflect our values. We've built this country on the values of opportunity, mobility, security, safety and health and they're still key to escaping poverty. Without intervention from Washington though, these values are in danger.

Central to this discussion are the decisions by federal leaders to chip away safety net programs that are a lifeline to those in poverty. Employment and job training programs are a key part of that lifeline. Cuts here not only throw values like opportunity and mobility to the wind, they do not make sense. We need these programs now more than ever. More than 23 million Americans are still unemployed and underemployed, and the majority of new jobs created since 2010 do not pay enough to keep families out of poverty -- these are the people standing at the edge of the cliff.

Resisting efforts to cut safety net programs through budget negotiations must be a priority for leaders who value security and safety. In 2011, more than 46 million Americans lived in poverty. In the President's home state of Illinois, 15 percent, or more than one in seven people, live in poverty. In 2011, poverty was cut nearly in half thanks to safety net programs like unemployment insurance, housing assistance, and nutrition programs. This safety net kept nine million children, 16.5 million seniors, and 22 million women from falling into poverty. Funding has since been slashed for these programs -- these are the people standing at the edge of the cliff.

Also on the chopping block is Medicaid, whose primary recipients are seniors, disabled adults, children, pregnant women and low-income working parents. If our leaders believe that every American deserves access to healthcare, they need to lend a hand to those standing on the edge of the cliff. In Illinois, of the 2.7 million people on Medicaid, 1,656,209 are children. If Medicaid did not exist, most of the more than 50 million Americans whose health coverage comes solely through Medicaid would join the ranks of the uninsured.

The stability and future of individuals and families should never be reduced to programs that make up budget line items and cuts to them are short sighted, threatening the stability, security and human rights of those already living on the edge. As our President and Congress take out their red pens and attempt to balance the budget, I urge them to reflect on the values that make America what it is today and the kind of America we want to preserve -- and not try to balance the budget on the backs of America's poor.