Back in 2014, Rep. Paul Ryan sponsored a hearing entitled “War on Poverty: A Progress Report” and California 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. Ryan refused to change the witness list, but he did allow her written remarks to be entered into the record. In this letter, Gaines-Turner follows up on her original statement in advance of Rep. Ryan’s unveiling of his new poverty task force proposal, due to happen later today. This post originally appeared at TalkPoverty.
Dear Speaker Ryan,
I read that you will roll out your new poverty task force’s proposal tomorrow, and I wonder if you remember me. I testified at one of the hearings you hosted on the War on Poverty two years ago. Of the 17 expert witnesses who participated in the series, I was the only one who actually lived in poverty.
At the time, I felt like I had the weight of so many people on my shoulders — people who don’t normally have a voice in Congress. How would Congress ever know what they should do to address poverty if they don’t ever speak to us?
I did my best to share my story and those of others in my community, and then I had the opportunity to meet you. As you reached to shake my hand, I said I wanted a hug. It was my way of trying to make our connection more personal — a reflection of my hope that we would begin to work together to make change around hunger and poverty.
As important as you said the issue was to you, I was sure that you would make a place in your work for me, my Witnesses to Hunger brothers and sisters, and many others who are living in poverty. Since 2008, we have used our photographs and testimonials to show the world what the experience of poverty is like and to advocate for serious change at the local, state and national level.
So in the past two years, I reached out to your office numerous times. So did the people at Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, where Witnesses to Hunger is based. Your office never responded to us. Unfortunately, people such as me and my husband, and many others who are struggling, continue to be shut out of your conversation in Washington.
As you may remember from my testimony, my husband and I work hard to provide for our family. I work at a community recreation center on after-school programming for children. In recent years, my husband has worked the deli at a grocery store, overnight at a meat-packing plant and as a security guard. He has endured two-hour commutes, worked night shifts, held multiple jobs at the same time — made the kinds of sacrifices a parent makes to try to lift up a family.
Yet despite our hard work, we’ve remained in poverty. Our three children suffer from epilepsy and asthma and take life-sustaining medication. We’ve rarely had benefits like paid leave that allow us to miss work without taking a hit to a paycheck. In 2008, our son was having seizures, and I had to leave my job to take care of him. Because of the lost income, we eventually lost our home and were homeless.
Should any person in America end up homeless for taking care of a sick child?
It’s clear as we look at how many people are struggling on low wages, forced to make impossible choices between basic necessities, that we still have plenty of work to do. It’s also clear that you could still learn a lot from me and many others who are experiencing poverty.
In your first speech as speaker you called for combining many safety-net programs into a single block grant. But I know you realize that poverty would be twice as high without the safety net, with nearly 30 percent of Americans living below the poverty line. What would our nation look like with 30 percent poverty? We can thank the safety net for the fact that we don’t know the answer to that question.
You and I also both know that more than half of people in America will be poor or near poor for at least a year during their working years, so the safety net is there for all of us. But it needs to be strengthened. We are already cutting poverty in half with our current safety net. Now, let’s set our sights on cutting poverty in half again. And let’s do it without messing up what is already working.
I hope your task force’s proposal builds on the things that we already know work — for example, we know the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reduces food insecurity and prevents hospitalizations, housing assistance helps young children stay healthy and preschool helps kids reach their full potential. But I’m pretty sure we will see the same old dangerous ideas like block granting wrapped up in new pretty packaging.
Mr. Speaker, the cameras have long moved on since I had the opportunity to introduce myself to you. I continue to live in the struggle with my Witness sisters and brothers and millions of others in poverty, and we continue to be shut out of your conversation in Washington.
Meet with us. Let us show you what’s going on in our neighborhoods and our homes, and share our ideas about solutions and change.