There are places in Pittsburgh where a political protest can hold up traffic. Mount Lebanon, though, isn't one of them: When not one but two lunchtime protests took place along Route 19 on Feb. 24, the traffic barely slowed.
On one side of the street, in front of U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy's district office, were more than a dozen supporters of liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org. Across the street were a handful of counter-demonstrators.
"I am the counter-protest," one of their signs read. "The rest of us couldn't take off work."
Not the most charitable sentiment, perhaps, given a national unemployment rate near 9 percent. But these are uncharitable times. MoveOn was denouncing a Republican-crafted budget, supported by Murphy, that would cut $60 billion in federal spending. On the hit list: food aid for low-income kids and moms, job-training programs, and winter heating assistance.
The rationale for such cuts is that the federal government has to live within its means -- just like the rest of us. Ironically, though, the rest of us are finding that harder to do.
Murphy himself was not in the office. So as the Route 19 traffic shuttled past, Bridgeville resident Terry Miale told me about how she'd lost one job -- as a system engineer working with the airline industry -- after 9/11. Another job was outsourced to India in 2008. She now works at a shopping mall: Her income has gone from roughly $75,000 a year to $7.75 an hour.
"We need to realize that we are all connected," she said. As cries of "communist!" periodically erupted from counter-protesters across the street, Miale lamented the political rhetoric that "divides people down the middle, making one half of us believe the other half are freeloaders."
She gestured toward the counter-protest. "Those people over there -- that's what they believe."
You could see why she thought so: One of the signs across the street read, "I am NOT your ATM." But Patricia Campbell, who was holding it, and her husband, Tim, said they were "just citizens -- citizens concerned about the unsustainable debt."
The Campbells live in Bethel Park with six kids. Each of those children, their parents feared, had already been saddled with a $45,000 bill -- their share of the federal debt.
"It would be nice to pay for everything," said Tim Campbell, a physician. "But we can't afford it."
I pointed out Miale to them. "She says she lost her first job because of 9/11. Her second job was outsourced to India. Now she's working in retail, barely getting by. Is that someone government should help?"
There was a chorus of disagreement from the people standing nearby. A Verona resident, Ilene Hightower, said she'd had career setbacks, too. "But at no time did I look to government for support. We should be looking to our families." There was unemployment 50 or 100 years ago too, I was reminded -- yet somehow people got along without government aid.
Tim Campbell didn't seem quite so sure. "The Lord says the poor will always be with you ..." he said, then stopped. A moment later he added, "I don't have a problem with things like supporting day care for people who work."
I noted that Murphy had voted to cut Head Start, which offers early education in part so parents can work.
"We're all going to have to suck it up," Patricia Campbell said.
Maybe not all of us. Murphy's party utterly opposes reversing tax cuts for the wealthy, despite the fact that its budget cuts -- drastic as they are -- do little to close the fiscal gap. Increasing revenue is barely discussed as an option. That leaves you cutting children's food and education today, to avoid hobbling them with debt tomorrow. It leaves you shouting across a street to people who don't hear you ... while the people who call the shots are nowhere to be seen.
The Campbells seemed like nice people. My guess is that if Terry Miale lived next door, they'd try to help her out. But the streets that connect us are usually little more than cul de sacs. Those that divide us, meanwhile, are four lanes wide. And hardly anyone bothers to cross them, or even to roll down their windows.