As Congress reconvened Monday to discuss America's richest citizens, human service organizations in Lincoln called together real people with real stories of how a little bit of government assistance during hard times can transform real lives.

Meet Karla McAdams and Amy Sutherland, two single moms from Lincoln who say without government assistance programs, they never would have been able to return to school and offer their children better lives.

Meet Jim Bates of Tecumseh. He left prison on March 25, 2010, with little more than $100 in his pocket and sheer determination to never return.

He confesses that without financial help through homeless prevention programs, utility assistance, food stamps and a caring caseworker -- who saw the man and not the criminal record -- he can't imagine where he would be right now.

All three told their stories Monday at a roundtable hosted by the Center for People in Need, Community Action of Nebraska, Voices for Children in Nebraska and Nebraska Appleseed. They came to talk about what mandated and proposed federal budget cuts would cost -- in human terms.

They are just three faces in a crowd of thousands of Nebraskans who need a hand up to help them thrive, said Beatty Brasch, executive director of the Center for People in Need.

Human service programs such as educational aid, food stamps, child care assistance, nutrition services for new mothers and their children, and Meals on Wheels for senior citizens, all stand to be gutted if the 2011 Budget Control Act remains intact and the House of Representatives' proposed budget goes through, Brasch said.

Under the Budget Control Act, mandated cuts for 2013 will tally $23.1 million for Nebraska.

Broken down, it means $2.7 million less for Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC); $3.3 million less for Head Start early childhood education programs; $1 million less for child care and education programs, $5.8 million less for special education, $1.4 million less for vocational rehabilitation, $2.4 million less for low-income home energy assistance programs and $5.3 million less for K-12 education.

If the House's budget proposal goes through, Nebraska could lose $430 million in funding of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps) over the next decade -- leaving up to 184,000 Nebraska residents with diminished resources, Brasch said.

More than one in eight Nebraskans and more than one in six Nebraska children live in poverty.

"I believe we need to reduce the nation's deficit, but not at the expense of our most vulnerable and children," Brasch said. "The budget should reflect the needs of our people, not of our politics."

While it's easy to be sympathetic to the plight of mothers and young children, helping a convicted felon re-enter society is not as likely to win the support of taxpayers.

Bates served 7 1/2 years in prison for a non-violent crime. Working in prison laundry, he earned 54 cents per hour. He sent money home to help his elderly mother and saved the rest for getting on his feet upon his release from prison.

It was enough to pay for one night in a Tecumseh motel and a meal.

The next day, he walked into the Health and Human Services office in Tecumseh and asked for help. The office gave him food stamps, one-time energy assistance and referred him to Southeast Nebraska Community Action (SENECA), where he met Julie Pettee Daire.

She set up a plan for him.

A surveyor before prison, Bates shared his dream with Daire to do woodworking and eventually start his own business. He completed everything on the plan Daire set for him, except find a job. So he started volunteering at the center.

Then he applied for the homeless prevention program, a federal program that since has ended. He was enrolled in a job training program. Today, he is an off-site supervisor. He also has reopened his own business, FiddleStix Wood Works, specializing in ornamental cabinetry.

"Every item I sell, I give at least 10 percent of the profits to the SENCA emergency fund in Johnson County, he said. But SENCA is in danger of losing funding if the federal budget cuts go through.

"If you want to be totally honest about it, the people making the decisions are politicians that never spent a day homeless in their life and they don't understand what they are doing to poor people," Bates said.

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.