In 2014, I testified before Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisconsin, now the House speaker, at a congressional hearing about poverty in America. Every other person who testified that day knew about poverty because they had studied it. I was the only one there actually living it.
As people who live in poverty, we are rarely invited to be part of the policy discussions that end up affecting us the most. The day I testified, I felt the weight of my entire community bearing down on me. Who knew when (or if) this opportunity would come again?
Back then, I wanted Ryan and his colleagues on the House Budget Committee to understand that poverty isn’t about laziness or a lack of intelligence. Poverty is not a situation anyone wants. I don’t know a single person who looks forward to standing in line at the food bank, using an EBT card at the grocery store or explaining to their kids why the electricity was shut off. These are not choices anyone would make.
I also wanted the panel to understand that most people who live in poverty work hard, often at multiple jobs. I work as a security guard at an office building in Philadelphia, for example, and I style hair on the side for extra money. My husband works several jobs. But minimum wage, even on a full-time schedule when we can get it, simply isn’t enough to live on. It’s not enough to provide for our three children, all of whom have special needs.
Without federal programs to help us put food on the table and get affordable medical care — like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and Medicaid — I don’t know what we’d do. Even now, I wake up every morning worrying about how my kids will get enough to eat. It’s a constant, overwhelming stress. But it could be so much worse.
Last month, one of those worst-case scenarios almost happened. Medicaid almost lost $880 billion in federal funding. This would have been disastrous for millions of families like mine.
I was so relieved when the House health-care plan failed, but it also took me back to my experience testifying on Capitol Hill. At the time, I thought that if Ryan could just hear my story, if he could see me as a human being instead of a statistic, he might change his mind about “restructuring” the programs my family needs to survive. That’s why, when he came over to shake my hand at the end of the hearing, I asked for a hug instead. For me, this was personal. I wanted him to remember me.
Now, almost three years later, I have no idea if my testimony (or the hug) made any difference to him at all. He hasn’t altered his plans of structural changes to federal anti-poverty programs; it was only a matter of luck that his recent attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed, and with it, the restructuring of Medicaid.
The structural changes Ryan envisions — sometimes referred to as “per capita caps” or “block grants” — are actually budget cuts that will devastate the safety net and harm families like mine. Forty-three million people participate in SNAP. Half of them are children, and the rest are mainly elderly, disabled and people with low-wage jobs. Seventy-four million Americans participate in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. These Americans are not trying to scam the system. They just want to survive.
The fact is, those of us living in poverty want the same things as everyone else. We want to own a home, have a good job, and send our kids to college. Sometimes it seems that lawmakers like Ryan feel that because we live in poverty, we don’t deserve any of these things, or even a chance to strive for a better life.
I wish I could ask Ryan if he feels that way today. I wish I could say: Speaker Ryan, you claim to care about poverty. You sat and listened to my story. You looked me in the eye. You gave me a hug. Did my testimony matter at all to you? Do you really believe that my life, and the lives of my children, are worth less than a tax break for the wealthy? I have a lot of questions, but I will just say this: You have a chance to change course, to do right by the millions of people in this country who are working as hard as they can for a better life. I want to end poverty in this country as much as you do, but gutting the safety net is not the way to do it.
Gaines-Turner lives and works in Philadelphia.