Meet The Economic Justice Warriors Attending The State of the Union Address


At Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama will deliver his agenda for 2014.

Among the attendees are four guests who do not fit the usual mold for special guests. They are Brian Krueger of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin; Tianna Gaines-Turner of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Simone Sonnier-Jang of Los Angeles, California; and Shareeka Elliot of Brooklyn, New York. Each embody an important economic issue impacting millions of Americans. For Brian Krueger, that means standing up for the long-term unemployed who go without the benefits of unemployment insurance. Tianna Gaines-Turner is a member of Witness to Hunger and will be in attendance on behalf of those struggling to feed themselves. Simone Sonnier-Jang, a Los Angeles fast food employee, and Shareeka Elliot, an airport worker from New York, are voices for the movement to increase the federal minimum wage.

Brian Krueger is a guest of his Congressional Representative, Mark Pocan (D-WI). Brian has been unemployed for six months, and until December 28th, like 1.3 million other Americans, had been receiving federal unemployment insurance. But Congress failed to reauthorize benefits at the end of the year. Krueger feels honored to be there, but his attendance has a much greater meaning to him, as he says, ““You’re not just there to see [the speech]. You’re there to help other people.” In this case, it means being the face of the 1.3 million unemployed workers and their 2.3 million children who go without benefits. For parents like Krueger, who has two children returning to school after winter vacation, it means even tighter budgeting as school year expenses resume. When the families of those affected by the failure of Congress to extend unemployment insurance see Brian Krueger in the capitol tonight, so too will every member of the House who voted against helping the families of America.

Tianna Gaines-Turner will be attending beside Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). Gaines-Turner is a participant of Witness to Hunger, a program at Drexel University’s School of Public Health. She described the plight of those struggling in poverty right now when she said, “We don’t want a hand out. We want a hand in.” She those living in poverty are friends, family, neighbors: according to the USDA, 18 million families were unable to provide adequate nutrition for their family members. Women will especially find resonance with Gaines-Turner’s attendance, as one in three women live in or near poverty, a population that comes close to 42 million. 33.5 million people watched the State of the Union address last year, and if this year’s number is similar, it means that there will be more Americans at or near poverty than will be tuning in.

Simone Sonnier-Jang is attending thanks to Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA). A Los Angeles fast food worker, Sonnier-Jang only makes $8 an hour working at McDonald’s and has had to rely on public assistance programs in order to afford the basics for her and her two children, ages six and four. Her case is not rare. In fact, taxpayers end up paying nearly a quarter-trillion dollars every year in public benefits as a result of low wages. From 2007 to 2011, the biggest public benefits programs spent $243 billion a year on working families who live in poverty or on the brink of it as a result of their jobs paying so poorly. As a result, many low wage workers, fast food workers especially, have been staging strikes across the country demanding a raise in the minimum raise and the right to form a union. As time goes on without any congressional action, the range of the strikes has been spreading and the frequency increasing.

Shareeka Elliott will be attending as the guest of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY). A mother of two living in Brooklyn, Elliot was invited to the event after a newspaper article was published about her harsh working situation; the 27-year-old scrubs floors and cleans toilets from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at Kennedy Airport for $8 an hour and then takes her daughters to school in the morning. Elliot is forced to rely on food stamps in order to feed her two daughters. Low wages in the airport industry are nothing new as deregulation that began in the 1970s and airline mergers since have led to contracts that lowered wages for new workers and a lack of competition that allowed companies to reduce wages even further. A federal raise in the minimum wage could drastically improve the quality of life or Elliot and her daughters, who share a single bedroom in an apartment that she also shares with her mother, brother, sister, and cousin. Regardless of her conditions, Elliot has hope for the State of the Union tonight. “It feels like someone is finally listening. If the President takes a step, everyone under him has to follow,” she said.