On Wednesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) will hold a hearing on poverty called “A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Lessons from the Frontlines.” While it will feature three experts, none of them are actually low-income Americans who struggle to get by.
But that’s not for lack of trying from some poor people themselves. Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy project that shares the stories of low-income Americans, has tried and failed twice to have some of their members who live in poverty speak at Ryan’s poverty hearings. “When Ryan had his first hearing last July,” Director Mariana Chilton told ThinkProgress, “we wrote to his office to see if we could testify, but they weren’t interested.” While Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) tried to get one of their low-income members to speak, it was too late. They were asked to submit written testimony instead.
Chilton’s organization stayed in touch with his office and immediately called his press team when they saw the announcement for Wednesday’s hearing. “They said, ‘It’s too late, we’ve already chosen our people.’” There was one slot left to be filled by Democrats, but that went to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. “I think Marian Wright Edelman is a great choice,” Chilton said. But “they had a stronger interest in having a more well-known person to testify.” That means that once again, the hearing won’t feature anyone who really is on the frontlines of poverty. “None of the people who are testifying today are currently living in poverty and it’s unclear if they really know what’s going on from the perspective of people living in it,” she said.
And the written testimonies they submitted will probably do little to impact the conversation. “They’re submitted and they disappear,” Chilton said. Tianna Gaines-Turner sent in a document last year, and this year Barbie Izquierdo has done the same. “If you look at the July hearing for the War on Poverty, you don’t see evidence of Tianna Gaines-Turner’s submitted testimony,” she added. It’s not on the website for the hearing, despite her requests to his office that they include the document, although it has been included on page 64 of the record. Izquierdo’s will probably meet the same fate. “Asking for formal written testimony is a way to let Paul Ryan’s office off the hook,” she said.
It’s also worth remembering that one of the three people who will testify has some controversial opinions about anti-poverty programs. Bishop Shirley Holloway, founder of the House of Help City of Hope, said, “You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”
Ryan’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
Those who wanted to testify aren’t happy about being excluded. “I think that’s just another poor excuse,” Gaines-Turner, married mother of three struggling to make ends meet, said. “You say you want to speak to someone who’s experienced frontline poverty, but you have no one there who’s actually experienced poverty first hand.” She said that she’s grateful for the opportunity to submit written testimony, but she said, “On the panel you have experts on hunger and poverty, but I’m the true expert. I’m the one who lives these daily struggles every day, who runs out of money at the end of the month every month, has faced homelessness, hunger, poverty.” And she added, “Not to knock the people that are there, but if you want to really understand, you need to speak to the people themselves firsthand. We’re real people, not just numbers.”
Gaines-Turner has certainly experienced these things. “I know what it’s like to use your stove to heat your home,” she said. She knows how dangerous that can be. But she also has young children — six-year-old twins and a son who is nine — who all have medical disabilities and need to be kept warm in winter.
Izquierdo, who was the first mother to join Witnesses to Hunger, regretted she wouldn’t be at the hearing. “Speaking is one of the most important things you can do,” she said. “You can write something, but there’s something different when you’re telling your story and they’re seeing your face and attaching your emotions to the written word.” She hopes a message can come across from her written testimony. “One of the most important things to take away from what was written is that people who are asking for the help actually need the help, and that these programs can work and people on public assistance can be productive citizens, we just need a chance,” she said. “We just need to be looked at as human beings.”
She’s now in school full time, studying criminal justice with the goal of one day being a funeral director and leaving a business to her children. But she has had direct experience with public programs. When she lost her job, she turned to food stamps. “It became the only source of income I had to provide food for my children,” she said. “If I didn’t have it I don’t know what I would have done, I had no other choice and no other option.”
For Chilton, these experiences are why it’s important to have low-income people testify. “They can talk about the shortcomings of federal programs,” while experts “cannot get it across as well as people who are low-income and actually living it,” she said. Poor Americans “have a vested interest.”