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Henry in the House: Tax-cut debate out of touch with the poor

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
CNN spoke with Alisa Mathis and Brian Powell, both of working age but can't find jobs. They live blocks from the White House.
CNN spoke with Alisa Mathis and Brian Powell, both of working age but can't find jobs. They live blocks from the White House.
  • Current debate: Should extension of Bush-era tax cuts including nation's wealthy?
  • As debate rages, we learn U.S. poverty rate jumped to 14.3 percent last year
  • CNN found a couple living in poverty practically in shadows of the White House
  • Ed Henry: Obama or Boehner would get a fresh perspective if they spent time with them

Ed Henry has covered the White House for CNN since March 2006. In "Henry in the House," he offers an insider's view of the Obama White House.

Washington (CNN) -- I was putting the finishing touches on a column with behind-the-scenes tidbits about the battle between President Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio over how to carve up the tax-cut pie. Should it just be the middle class getting an extension of the Bush tax cuts or are the rich keeping a big slice, too?

But then federal government revealed the nation's poverty rate jumped to 14.3 percent last year. More than 43 million Americans are living in poverty, the highest level in half a century.

And next thing you know, I got an e-mail from Wolf Blitzer's executive producer, Patricia DiCarlo, with a good idea: "Seems that within blocks of the White House, we could find people who are living below the poverty level."

So I hit the phones looking for a nonprofit that might help me find a couple of the 43 million people living in poverty right in the president's backyard. I started with a famous place just across Lafayette Park, St. John's Episcopal Church, where Obama attended Mass on the morning of his inauguration.

A nice lady there told me the church focuses its efforts on providing resources to So Others Might Eat, a well-known charity in Washington known by the acronym SOME. Officials there quickly got my producer, Erika Dimmler, and I together with two people who are unemployed and living in a subsidized housing facility just blocks from the White House.

I met up with Brian Powell and Alisa Mathis, who are both of working age but can't find jobs. They're each living off Social Security benefits and would probably be homeless and living on the streets without help from SOME.

Suddenly the raging debate over whether to hand out tax cuts to people above or below $250,000 a year seemed like a pretty small concern since it's a figure that people in poverty cannot imagine making.

"Well, first of all it's like -- foreign to me," Powell told me. "I wish I could fall in either one of those categories and hoping whether I got the tax cut or not. I mean, it just doesn't apply to me at all, which you know, it's sad."

Mathis, meanwhile, lives in a three-bedroom apartment with four children and said she wants the president to know how hard it is to get by. She said with a wan smile that about the only upside for her right now is that she doesn't have to pay for child care for her kids because being unemployed means that she's home waiting when they return from school.

She said she wouldn't be able to make it without housing help from SOME, which gets a small amount of money from federal and city grants and mostly survives on private donations.

"Right now, it's hard finding permanent housing ... on just the income that we make," Mathis said of her Social Security checks.

It's a perfect lesson in humility.
--Brian Powell on living in poverty
  • Barack Obama
  • John Boehner
  • Poverty

Powell told me emotionally that he has relatives in the Washington area, but he's a proud man and does not want to ask them for help. He paints a harrowing picture of what it's like to be poor in America right now.

"Well, first off, it's very demoralizing; it's a perfect lesson in humility," said Powell. "And the biggest adjustment that I had a problem with in the beginning is being able to separate your wants from your needs."

I was standing there listening to these two people and wondering when are leaders in either party going to get as excited about the problems of the poor as they are about the political battle over tax cuts for the middle class and rich?

To be fair, Obama weighed in on the poverty crisis on Friday from the White House Rose Garden.

"We know that a strong middle class leads a strong economy," he said. "And that's why, as we dig our way out of this recession, we've set our sights on policies that grow the middle class and provide a ladder for those who are struggling to join it."

But so far, there appears to be little action from either side.

As I look into my notebook from earlier this week, top Democratic officials were absolutely fired up about their efforts to go on the attack against Boehner.

These officials say that inside the West Wing of the White House, the turning point in the decision to have Obama go after Boehner directly came after the Republican leader decided to give a major speech in Cleveland, Ohio, blasting the president's economic policies.

"Here's this guy who has not had an original idea and suddenly he's attacking the president," a top Democratic official told me. "He's just a glad-handing political leader."

While some Democrats have questioned whether it's a smart strategy for Obama to raise the largely unknown Boehner's profile, officials close to the president say it's the best way for the White House to level the playing field. In their views, the president has been shadow-boxing with himself for the past 20 months.

From the stimulus plan to health reform and Wall Street reform, Obama has put his plans out there. Republicans have largely refused to offer their own options, choosing instead to blast away at Obama's plans, tearing his approval ratings down in the process.

By highlighting Boehner's economic plan, a senior administration official told me, "Now there's an alternative out there."

And this week, that strategy appeared to give the White House a short-term victory. Under pressure from Obama to focus the tax cuts on just the middle class, Boehner suggested to CBS he'd be willing to drop the tax cuts for the rich if he had to. That sparked outrage from Boehner's fellow Republicans and now he's backpedaling.

The Republican view is largely that Boehner was just answering a hypothetical question and has always made clear he wants to extend the Bush-era tax cuts due to expire in 2011 for middle class and the rich. And Republicans happily note that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now facing pressure from conservatives in her own party to renew the Bush tax cuts for the rich and middle class, so the Democrats might yet have to give in themselves.

So basically both sides have drawn their battle lines on middle-class and upper-class tax cuts. But my question is when is either party going to step up and spend just as much time, energy and political capital helping people such as Brian Powell and Alisa Mathis?

Obama or Boehner would get a fresh perspective on this somewhat tired debate if they just spent part of an afternoon with them.

After all, they live just a few blocks from either the White House or the Capitol.