When President Obama takes the oath of office Monday, he’ll stand at the center of a region with some of the greatest income inequality in the country. But in Washington, many of the rich and poor have something in common: Their income depends in some way on the federal government. Our Wealth and Poverty Desk has three stories of how looming budget cuts in D.C. are reverberating across the classes.
Let’s start right at the foot of the Capitol. You can’t get much closer than here, in the office of this lobbyist.
“I can sit at my desk which was made in Montana and feel like I’m in the wilderness,” says Bob Van Heuvelen. “And then I can look out my window and see the United States Capitol and the United States Senate and I feel just great.”
Bob Van Heuvelen used to work in the Senate. Now he lobbies it on behalf of biofuel and health care companies. That brings in a lot of money.
“I’m lucky to be one of those people who will now have to pay a little bit more tax. I’m happy to step up,” he says.
I ask Van Heuvelen how someone like him -- who makes money requesting things from the government -- reacts to the possibility it will shrink. Turns out he’s not worried about his own pockets. He worries for people like his 93-year-old father, who just spent two weeks in intensive care with a bad flu.
“These remarkable doctors and nurses rescued him, he had an incredibly low blood pressure. And they pulled him out of it,” he says.
Van Heuvelen’s father then went to a nursing home, and his stay will be partly covered by Medicare. It’s the safety net this Washington lobbyist thinks of when he looks at budget battles coming down the road.
“What would I do if Medicare weren’t there?” he asks. “And I’m a person who’s fortunate. What do people who don’t have anything to their name, what do they do in this circumstance? I don’t know what they do.”
You don’t have to go far from the Capitol -- just a few miles across the Anacostia River -- to reach the other end of the income scale. Natasha Alston lost her job after she had her daughter a couple years ago. They both wound up homeless.
“It’s devastating, it is, but at the same time, you don’t want to stay in that position,” she says. “I could not sit back and continue to cry about what had happened. I had to get up and do something about it because I had a child.”
Today Alston lives in supported housing through an organization called Sasha Bruce Youthwork. She gets help from various social programs while studying to be a certified nursing assistant and phlebotomist.
Every dollar counts in the transition from homelessness. Sitting right there on her counter is an example of how federal spending cuts could make that math harder. It’s a can of baby formula, for sensitive tummies.
“Powder’s much easier for us,” Alston says. “Just shake and go.”
Each can of formula costs about $28. Alston gets 9 cans a month for her one-year-old boy, through the supplemental nutrition program known as WIC. WIC is one of the federal programs that would face cuts under sequestration. Those sweeping cuts to defense and discretionary spending are still on the calendar, unless Congress comes up with an alternative. Alston hopes she won’t have to take milk money out of another supplement, like food stamps.
“You know, it would take a huge chunk out of it, wherein we would suffer as well,” she says.
In the defense world, the threat of a $52 billion cut this year has mobilized the Pentagon and shaken the web of defense contractors fanning out across the suburbs.
Jim Jeans is one thread of that web. He’s an aerospace structural engineer in Herndon, Virginia, and our last stop. We’re standing in front of a wall of photographs that shows his history in aircraft.
“The first big job I did was the B-2, this thing,” he says.
The Stealth Bomber. It was super secret, back in the '80s.
“I couldn’t even tell anybody what I was working on,” Jeans says.
Back then, he worked for the big contractors. Now he runs his own small business called Structural Design and Analysis, Inc. He’s always had work, lives in a big house -- though he jokes none of the recent tax hike proposals would have affected him. Most of his government work comes from NASA and he thinks space is safe. But defense cuts make him worry.
“I don’t know how any budget changes are gonna impact me. I know many of my customers are very worried and are scaled back what they’re doing,” he says.
The thing is, Jeans is a pretty conservative guy. He’s the first to say government should shrink -- all of it -- but he also believes in his work. Take space, for example.
“We should want to expand as race and investigate what’s out there,” he says. “That to me is a valid expense. And the other is military, that’s in our Constitution that we should be protecting ourselves. So the part of the government that I support to me is a very valid part of the government.”
Jim Jeans is trying to diversify his client base. He mentions dredges and racecars. He’ll find work, whatever happens. Because he loves it, and because he’s skeptical Social Security will survive the chopping block long enough for his retirement.