Meet The First Poor Person Allowed To Testify At Any Of Paul Ryan’s Poverty Hearings

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH

On Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) will hold a fifth hearing on poverty and the social safety net. For the first time, a person actually living in poverty will be allowed to testify.

Tianna Gaines-Turner’s family CREDIT: Tianna Gaines-Turner
Tianna Gaines-Turner’s family CREDIT: Tianna Gaines-Turner

Tianna Gaines-Turner, a childcare provider who makes $10.80 an hour, a mother of three, and a participant in the advocacy and story-telling Witnesses to Hunger program, will testify before the House Budget Committee about her experiences. She submitted written testimony for a hearing last year, even there was no indication on the hearing’s website and it was included on page 64 of the record. But she wanted to speak in person: the Witness program tried and failed twice to have its members testify at these hearings.

“It was a long time coming, but I’m glad it’s finally here,” Gaines-Turner told ThinkProgress about her testimony on Wednesday. “I’m finally getting the opportunity to speak up for so many Americans that are going through life struggles that obviously the committee doesn’t know anything about. I would hope that if they knew, they wouldn’t keep constantly trying to cut the programs in the safety net.”

Gaines-Turner certainly knows what it means to struggle. She and her husband have weathered two bouts of homelessness together and two of her children suffer from epilepsy while all three suffer from asthma, afflictions that mean they all have to take medication daily. “I know what it’s like to be homeless and to couch surf, to miss meals so my children can have a nutritional meal,” she said. “I know what it’s like to wake up every day wondering where the next meal will come from or how to pay the bills today or will someone come today and cut off the water. I’ve been through all of that.”

Her husband works at a food market and makes $8.50 an hour on top of her wages. They’ve both worked jobs without paid sick days, and “if one of the children got sick me and my husband had to decide who stays home with the kid,” she said. “We were grateful to take off the time, but it’s three or four days without pay.”

“I am the best experienced witness that they’ll ever maybe get close to to know what it’s like to walk in my shoes and those of so many other people in the United States,” she said.

Her commitment to testifying and excitement about the opportunity were evidenced by the fact that as of Monday she was struggling with pain from a kidney infection. But she said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world… I’ll suck it up and go and be in pain.”

I am the best experienced witness that they’ll ever maybe get close to.

With her testimony, Gaines-Turner hopes to have an impact on lawmakers in Congress. “I’m hopeful that it will change some of their minds,” she said. “The main reason I’m speaking to the committee is to change what’s going on for my children and so many American children growing up in poverty so they don’t have to go through these kinds of things.” She will ask the committee to set up a task force with Democrats and Republicans as well as representatives from government anti-poverty agencies and people living in poverty themselves to look at paid sick leave, food stamps, the minimum wage, health insurance, and dependable scheduling. “I’m hoping it will be the beginning of many conversations with the budget committee,” she said.

As for herself, her long-term goal is “that I won’t need to be on safety net programs,” she said. “The long-run goal for me and my family is for me and my husband to find stable work where we can get paid a living wage, offered by our employers medical benefits, 401(k)s, retirement.”

“No one wakes up in the morning and says I think I want to be in poverty today or I want to apply for food stamps, wakes up with the enthusiastic goals of sitting in the county assistant’s office or waiting in the pantry line,” she said. “I feel like so many families in poverty, we learn how to jump hurdles before we walk.” Lawmakers “need to understand that,” she added.