The True Experts on Poverty

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following post appeared first in Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” blog.

Congressman Paul Ryan recently said that Republicans “don’t have a full-fledged” plan to fight poverty “because we need to do more listening to people who are in the trenches fighting poverty.”

He had the perfect opportunity to do just that at a recent House Budget Committee hearing, “War on Poverty: A Progress Report,” which he chaired. California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee requested that Chairman Ryan allow Tianna Gaines-Turner — a mother and anti-poverty activist who has struggled with poverty and homelessness — to testify.

Tianna Gaines-Turner (Photo: Center for Hunger-Free Communities)

But Chairman Ryan balked.

“Ranking Member Van Hollen previously selected a witness to testify, and I won’t be able to make further additions to the witness list,” he wrote in a letter to Congresswoman Lee.

But the Chairman could have made additions to the witness list had he truly wanted to, he simply chose not to. He did, however, permit Gaines-Turner to submit written testimony.

The only problem with that is that written testimony normally sees about as much light of day as that old t-shirt with all of the holes that you keep in the back of your bottom drawer — the one you might take out again some day to workout in provided that no one you know is within ten miles of you.

Had the Chairman included Gaines-Turner at the hearing, this is what the American people would have learned:

Gaines-Turner and her husband both work and have three children — a nine-year-old son on the honor roll in 4th grade, and five-year-old twins who are entering kindergarten. All three of her children suffer from epilepsy and moderate to severe asthma.

She earns $10 an hour working part-time for a childcare provider, and her husband earns $8 an hour working the deli counter at a grocery store. They aren’t offered health insurance through work, and earn too much to qualify for medical assistance. She, too, suffers from asthma and writes that she “currently can’t afford to get an inhaler.”

Their children are covered through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and “take life-saving medication every day.”

“I worry about a day that might come where my children won’t be able to see a specialist because I can’t afford the co-pay.… Just like you want the best for your children I want the best for my children.”

She describes a time when their oldest son was hospitalized with seizures. She took off work to be with him while her husband took off to care for the twins.

“We were both unable to work, so we lost money that month, and ultimately had to make a choice — do we pay the rent or do we pay the light bill? Not to mention, how do we buy food…? Poverty is not just one issue that can be solved at one time. It’s not just an issue of jobs, or food, or housing, or utility assistance, and safety. It’s a people issue. And you can’t slice people up into issues. We are whole human beings.”

Gaines-Turner discusses a familiar story — low-income families working “two-to-three jobs to make ends meet,” with “wages so low and expenses so high” that sometimes work “may not be enough to even pay for the expense of child care.” She also describes what some call the “cliff effect” — when government assistance (such as child care) is taken away at the very moment someone begins to get ahead.

“Just when someone is moving forward, the rug is ripped out from under them. This cycle pushes people deeper into poverty than they were before they took the job. This system needs to change in order for people like myself to forge a better future for myself and my children, one where I will never need to turn to public assistance again.”

Like many of the Witnesses to Hunger I’ve had the opportunity to speak with, Gaines-Turner has particular expertise when it comes to food and nutrition issues. Witnesses to Hunger has chapters in four cities, including Gaines-Turner’s Philadelphia, where members use photography to document their experiences in poverty and learn to advocate for change on the local, state, and federal levels.

She describes families who “put their children to bed before dinner because there was nothing to eat,” and “others who look at food menus delivered to their door so they canimagine ordering dinner and trick themselves into thinking that they’ve eaten, when actually they haven’t eaten in days.” She says that most nights she and her husband “make our dinners on what is left over on our children’s plates — we call it ‘kids plate surfing.’ We are able to get by thanks to SNAP (food stamps) but we are not eating well.” Gaines-Turner argues against proposals to cut SNAP and offers data and her own every day experiences to make her case:

“The reality is that SNAP keeps us from starving. It is critical to the survival of the 50 percent of American children who will rely on the program at some point in their lives…. If my benefits are cut that means less meals and less nutritious foods. Cutting a person’s benefits by $10, or $15, or $20 might not seem like a lot to legislators, but it would cut meals out completely for families like mine…. I would still feed my kids, but it would be cheap Oodles of Noodles with lots of sodium…. They would not get fresh vegetables and fruit.”

In contrast to what I heard from legislators during the Farm Bill debate, Gaines-Turner mentions the very relevant Institute of Medicine report demonstrating that “SNAP benefits do not last, because the monthly SNAP benefit is not enough for a healthy diet.”

“My family, friends, and community could have told you that years ago. But people wouldn’t believe us because they would somehow think it was our fault.  The Institute of Medicine shows that it’s not our fault.  It is the system we have that needs improvement.”

Gaines-Turner asserts that “the issues of medical care, housing, and food all go hand-in hand.” She writes that she and her family have been homeless twice in recent years. When the twins were born, the first home they rented they chose simply because it was affordable. She said there were shootings and “children everywhere on this street.” There was also a “terrible rodent problem on the block — mice and cockroaches” which “are asthma triggers.” The family spent “too much money on an exterminator to no avail.” It wasn’t safe, so they used what little savings they had to live in a hotel or sleep on her mother-in-law’s couch.

During this time the family was actually approved — after waiting for 10 years — for Section 8 housing. But they didn’t know it.

“They tried to send the forms to our old address, but they had the spelling of the street wrong, so it never reached us. We didn’t know about this for months. And because we never responded, we were put back on the bottom of the waitlist. All of the housing forms are still paper-based. It is a system that is still in the Stone Age.”

Gaines-Turner writes that it took a call from a legislator’s office to correct the mistake, and that they “now live in a slightly safer neighborhood.”

“Yet there are still abandoned homes on our street, shootouts in the bar down the street, and several homeless people who stay under the bridge in the nearby subway.”

Gaines-Turner also responded directly to Congressman Ryan’s assertion in a recent interview that — as she paraphrased — “people need to get involved in their communities and help each other out, because [that] is much better than government benefits.”

“If you actually came into our communities, actually invited us to talk with you… you would learn that government benefits are actually helping us stay healthy. You would also see that helping each other out is exactly what we do, every day to survive. 

She describes how she and her neighbors recently received donated food and took it “to an abandoned house… and set up a place on the porch where people could come and get food…. If you were hungry, if you wanted food, we gave it to you.” She also checks in daily on an elderly neighbor who spends “her entire Social Security check [on] rent and utilities” and has little money left for food.

“Moments like these are not unique. They happen every day throughout our country. And if our government officials and policymakers took the time to really look at and try to understand the communities they are supposed to represent, they would see that.”

Before laying out her recommendations for fighting poverty, Gaines-Turner writes that she doesn’t want the proverbial “hand out” or “hand up.” What she and people in her community are looking for is a “hand in.”

“Include us. If you want to find solutions to the issues that people face while living in poverty, people actually living in poverty need to be part of the discussion when decisions are being made. If you do not have an understanding of the struggles, how can you try to solve them…? We are the real experts. We know American policies first hand.”

Gaines-Turner then offers six major recommendations: creating a bipartisan task force on poverty representing urban, rural, and suburban districts, and including people who live in poverty; investing in good jobs with good pay, so that working people are able to get off of public assistance; protecting and strengthening SNAP, which prevents more costly emergency room visits; investing in affordable housing; supporting access to health care; and promoting asset building, so that families can “build their own safety net” and aren’t “kicked off [public assistance] for just having a little more than nothing.”

Gaines-Turner closes by saying that “millions of Americans just like me will work with you to help you with the answers to poverty that you seek.”

“We invite you to come to Philadelphia to see where and how we live, to come to our grocery stores, childcare centers, and elder homes, and to visit with my neighbors. And then we can talk like equals, and join in the idea of putting poverty in the past, of investing in helping American people do and be their best. It’s the patriotic thing to do.”

I hope the Committee takes Gaines-Turner up on her kind invitation. You can read her testimony in a downloadable PDF.

Greg Kaufmann is the poverty correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to His work has also been featured on Moyers & Company, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, NPR,,, Common Dreams and Alternet. He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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