On Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan held his fifth hearing on the War on Poverty, and for the first time he allowed a person actually living in poverty to testify. Tianna Gaines-Turner shared her personal experiences struggling to make ends meet and provide food for her three children who suffer from medical conditions along with her husband. She works as a seasonal employee with children for $10.88 an hour, while her husband works at a grocery store for $8.50.
But when Rep. Todd Rokita got the chance to ask questions of Gaines-Turner and the two other witnesses, he directed much of his attention toward calling into question whether she is dependent on government programs, whether she has tried to find more work, and if she is partisan. He gave a “theoretical example” in which the government would increase spending on government programs like food stamps and welfare by 500 percent and asked, “They [people on the programs] would be out of poverty and that would be a good thing?” to which Gaines-Turner responded, “Yes, the programs work, yes it would be good to move them out of poverty.”
He followed up saying, “But the cycle of dependency would certainly still be there which you also don’t like… The cycle of dependency, you wouldn't be independent.”
“I’m independent now on the program,” Gaines-Turner told him. “You’re independent on this?” Rokita asked.
“Yes, I consider myself to be very independent. I work just as hard as anybody in this room,” Gaines-Turner replied. “I’m very independent.”
“You’re independent, but you’re here testifying that you have to have these programs, you need these programs,” Rokita responded.
Later in his questioning, Rokita interrupted Gaines-Turner to ask her about her job. When she said that she works for six months of the year at a recreational center for children, Rokita asked, “And is that by choice so you can spend more time with your kids the other six months or have you tried to get other employment or not?” But Gainer-Turner has tried to find work. And had no success. “I’ve tried to find a lot of employment but due to health issues and things like that I haven’t been able to find adequate jobs,” she responded. As she previously said, “No one wakes up in the morning and says I think I want to be in poverty today.”
He also questioned her on whether she is “partisan” because she serves as a ward leader in Philadelphia, helping people to vote, and is a Democrat.
Rokita’s questioning seemed to imply that Gaines-Turner could make more money and escape her “dependence” if she worked harder. But for many of those living in poverty, that’s just not the case. The majority of adult, able-bodied, non-elderly poor people work. But in this economy, finding extra work, or any work at all, can be nearly impossible. In May, the most recent month for which there is data, there were more than two times as many job seekers as job openings. And unemployment rates are even higher for those with less education, who also tend to have lower incomes.
Gaines-Turner is also right that the programs that her family and millions of others turn to work. Safety net programs such as food stamps, welfare, housing assistance, Social Security, and others keep millions out of poverty each year. And it’s hard to claim that the impoverished are dependent on government programs when those who receive benefits are far more frugal than those who don’t, spending more of their budgets on the necessities and less on things like eating out or entertainment.