Leaving my office for the Observer forum, I nearly knocked over an elderly woman looking desperately for help. “Is this the women’s shelter?” she cried out in the cold. For a moment, I considered bringing her as my guest. I was afraid the panelists might not talk about actual people like her. It seemed important for her voice to be in the crowd. This skepticism was echoed the next day by a Free Store volunteer, a mother who once sought utility assistance herself to ensure her children slept safely. “Their talk seems so elevated and removed from what I am experiencing daily, struggling to keep my family afloat,” she said.
Indeed, some of Friday’s conversation turned to actual people. We heard about the importance of corporate lobbyists in Washington who offer research and data to inform decision-making. We were assured there are cordial meetings among staff of differing political parties on Capitol Hill. But it was the last question of the evening that brought a direct tie to our neighbors in need. One congressman told of a constituent with a rare disease who, by sharing a personal story, caused him to change his vote on an issue. Another congressman spoke of seeing people in his district suffering financial hardship, also causing him to re-examine his stated position on a vote.
Debating the fiscal cliff is not just about sticking to one’s guns. It’s about real people and the impact Congress has on those folks’ ability to feed, clothe and shelter their families. In this season of faith and hope, I urge our political leaders to see the faces of people in need and believe in the power of compromise. Maybe, like we heard the congressmen say, this might change their vote.