This post first appeared in The Nation.Recently, at the Social Mobility Summit at the Brookings Institution, Representative Paul Ryan declared the War on Poverty a failure. He went on to announce: “Later this year I plan on saying a whole lot more about this subject. But before I lay out any policy prescriptions for poor families, I need to hear more from the real experts — the families themselves.”
He had an opportunity to do just that when Amy Treptow visited Washington, DC, as the winner of the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty Storyteller Contest, sponsored by the Half in Ten campaign and the Coalition on Human Needs. The contest was part of the Our American Story project, which connects people who have experienced poverty with political leaders, media, and advocacy organizations — an ongoing effort to raise the visibility of those who don’t have a high-profile lobby representing their interests during policy debates. (Full disclosure: I am an adviser to the Half in Ten campaign.)
Treptow visited the nation’s capital to share her story with journalists and policymakers. She met with her representative, Mark Pocan; Representative Barbara Lee; and Paul Ryan, whose staff contacted her to set up a meeting.
When Treptow showed up to meet with Ryan, he suggested they take a photo in the corridor in front of the flag where Treptow could tell him a little about herself.
“I let him know that I had become a single mother unexpectedly, and that through the help of Medicaid, Section 8 food stamps and the West CAP [job training] program I was able to get back on my feet, be self-sufficient and own a home again,” she says. “I told him it was important to protect programs that help people.”
“Republicans aren’t against all of those things, despite what you might have heard,” Treptow says Ryan told her.
They snapped the photographs and the congressman said he had to head to his next appointment. Treptow was disappointed. She had heard that Ryan wants to speak with people who have experienced poverty firsthand.
“I was right there,” she says. “He didn’t ask me to elaborate on a single thing. If he’s really thinking about how these programs are working for people, he could have asked something. But I shared as much of my story as I could — whether he chooses to listen or not.”
Treptow’s story is indeed a compelling one. A veteran of the Navy, she says that just six years ago she had “a very good life” with her then-husband and two children in a house that they owned. The family’s income allowed her to stop working full-time as a first grade teacher. She taught reading at the school for three hours a day, worked as a substitute teacher and did a lot of volunteer work.
“But then my life drastically and instantly changed,” she says.
Treptow’s husband left without warning, and she found herself alone with her two children.
“It was terrifying,” she says. “I was worried I was going to be homeless.”
Treptow waited for a year to receive Section 8 housing assistance. (She notes that many people wait for much longer.) She turned to food stamps and Medicaid, and applied for 110 full-time teaching positions to no avail. She continued to work as a substitute and part-time reading teacher, earning approximately $15,000 a year—well below the poverty line for a family of three.
“The district hadn’t hired in several years,” she says. “I knew I needed to go back to school to make myself more valuable to a district so I could obtain a full-time job with benefits.”
Her caseworker referred her to the West CAP community action agency in Glenwood City, Wisc. The agency offers a program for low-income adults who work at least 20 hours per week; it helps them gain additional skills to obtain a living wage job with health benefits.
To be admitted to the program, Treptow had to demonstrate that becoming certified as a reading specialist would boost her chances at a full-time teaching position. She found job postings online and submitted them to the agency. A professor at University of Wisconsin-Stout also wrote her a letter of recommendation. Treptow was accepted into the program, which then covered a portion of her tuition and textbooks.
With the help of West CAP’s $2,076 investment in her, Treptow received her certification and now earns nearly $40,000 and health benefits teaching mostly low-income children to read.
“I work with students in first through fifth grades who need intense intervention to increase their overall reading skills,” says Treptow.
In order to support her family and pay off her student loans, Treptow works two additional jobs — in the afterschool program and at an athletic field house on Saturdays. She once again owns her home.
Treptow enjoyed her time speaking with Congressman Pocan — whose congressional district shares Rock County with Ryan’s district.
“He was very welcoming,” she says. “We talked for about 15 minutes or so.”
Pocan called her story “inspirational” and read it into the Congressional Record on the floor of the House of Representatives. Treptow says that was important to her.
“I was very hesitant to come to DC,” she says. “I hadn’t shared my story with my colleagues because of the negative stereotypes about people who receive public assistance. But this made me feel better about what I’ve been through, and that these kinds of stories need to be heard by politicians, if there is a chance of these safety net programs continuing.”
Representative Lee is someone who frequently shares with her colleagues the stories of ordinary Americans who are struggling. In fact, Treptow sat in the House Gallery as Lee spoke on the floor of a constituent whose children were benefitting from Head Start. Treptow says she had “read up on” the congresswoman prior to her visit and wasn’t surprised that they connected with one another when they met.
“Because she had been in the same shoes as me,” said Treptow. “I admire her — where she has been and where she is now. And not only that, she fights for where she has been and what she believes makes a difference.… These are the people we need in Congress, not people who just want to cut everything.”
Treptow hopes that the media and policymakers will keep telling the stories of the millions of people who turn to our safety net programs to “move forward, or get out of poverty — to have a better life.”
“If it’s just a couple of stories here and there, people see it as an exception and the negative stereotypes continue,” she says. “But if it’s story after story after story — that makes a difference. We need that now. Because if you take those safety net programs away, then what’s going to happen?”