She told Paul Ryan what it’s like to be poor


April 4, 2017

Last spring, we reported on a new documentary making the rounds at Sundance and other venues throughout the country. A Hug from Paul Ryan followed the story of Tianna Gaines-Turner, who, despite working two jobs just like her husband, struggles with poverty in their hometown of Philadelphia.
The highlight of the short documentary: In 2013, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) wanted Gaines-Turner to appear before a committee chaired at the time by Ryan that was examining poverty. Ryan did not allow her to testify in person; instead she was “allowed” to submit written testimony. And during a break in House activity, Rep. Lee pulled Ryan off the House floor to introduce her to Gaines-Turner; this led to the infamous hug from Ryan. And one year later, she actually did get to testify in person; she became the only person receiving public assistance to appear at the House Budget Committee’s 2014 “war on poverty” hearing.

This week, Gaines-Turner recounts the experience in an op-ed published online by the Washington Post. The headline: ‘I told Paul Ryan what it’s like to be poor. I wonder if he remembers me now.’

In the op-ed, Gaines-Turner recalls her testimony and what she wanted to convey to the committee:

“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 do 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.”

And she discusses the threats on the horizon:

“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.”

So what can you do? What can you do if you think Tianna’s life matters? What can you do if you want to protect and preserve our country’s safety net? What can you do if we want to address poverty in a sensible, meaningful, compassionate way, not the Paul Ryan-block-grant-cut-the-budget kind of way?

There are three things you can do now and in the coming weeks.

First, you can sign our petition calling for a People’s Budget – a budget that keeps us safe and secure and provides everyone – Tianna included – with the opportunities to succeed in life.

Second, you can plan to participate in congressional town hall meetings during two weeks in April. Come Friday, members of Congress are expected to return home for the traditional Easter recess.

Third, you can plan to participate in Tax Day marches that are being organized in more than 100 cities and towns across the country – you can see the growing list here.

That’s what you can do. Just don’t expect a hug from Paul Ryan.

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