Thanksgiving food drives have become as much a part of the holiday’s tradition for some Americans as football games and cranberry sauce. It’s a recognition that there is still great need in our communities at this time when many are giving thanks for all they have.

When the holiday is done, most of us move on to other concerns, but the need remains acute.

That’s why we are grateful for the nonprofit agencies, church groups and volunteers who continue to provide for those in need throughout the year. But as valuable as their contributions are, they can’t do it alone.

Caring for people in poverty, helping those who can get out and stay out, and creating paths for opportunity and success is the government’s job, and key programs that do that are on the chopping block as Congress and the White House negotiate over the forced budget cuts and tax increases known as the fiscal cliff.

Too much of this debate has focused on the $1 trillion deficit that is a long-term threat to our economy. But the more immediate threat is slow economic growth, and the antidote to that is an expanding and secure middle class. Too much austerity this year could mean a deeper economic hole to dig out of later.

During this period of recession and a frustrating, slow rebound, it’s easy to discount the programs that fight poverty as government waste, but the truth is that they kept things from getting worse.

Extended unemployment benefits and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known more commonly as food stamps) were more than just handouts. They provided support when people needed it most and kept millions of people out of poverty. So did an enhanced earned income tax credit, which was funded from the 2009 stimulus bill, and gave millions of families the help they needed to avoid falling below the federal poverty line, which is $23,013 a year for a family of four. About 46 million people, roughly 15 percent of the country, live on less than that.

It’s easy to see what would happen if these programs are cut back by austerity proponents in Washington. More will fall back into poverty, creating more people without enough to eat, a place to live or a safe place to raise a child. It also means a future strain on education, social service and public safety programs.

The holiday season is no time for the federal government to walk away from the real need in our communities that inspires people to collect food or volunteer at a soup kitchen. Fighting poverty calls for us to do more, not less.