I wrote this (below) a few weeks ago in response to one of Rep. Paul Ryan’s high-profile hearings about poverty and am publishing now because the issue remains in the news. Since that hearing, Ryan has released a new plan, one that is a lot less extreme than the Ryan budgets just about every member of the GOP voted in favor of.
It gives me hope, as I head back to Myrtle Beach full-time, that he is no longer stuck on his simplicity view of poverty, even if I still disagree with portions of his plan.
Why public assistance matters
I’m no longer ashamed of having used food stamps, only ashamed of my previous shame.
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Tianna Gaines-Turner – the first poor person allowed to testify before one of Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty hearings – shouldn’t be ashamed, either.
From the looks of it, she didn’t have her hand out; instead her head was held high.
She didn’t resemble the thin, blonde, tan, food stamp-loving surfer-dude featured so prominently on the nation’s most popular cable news network to justify cutting billions of dollars of that much-derided assistance program.
I couldn’t tell, though, if she drove up to the hearing in one of Reagan’s welfare Cadillacs or if she hid the hammock that lulls poor people into a permanent state of dependence the way Ryan and others of his ilk have convinced themselves the poor succumb to because of a supposedly overly-generous social safety net.
There were no sightings of Rick Santorum, the last GOP candidate standing in the Republican primary with Mitt Romney in 2012, the eventual nominee, who believed the poor had already “been taken care of” because of the largesse they receive from the government. Santorum has convinced himself, and is trying to convince the rest of us, that all people have to do in America is get married and poverty would be kept at bay.
Gaines-Turner is the married mother of three in a household headed by two working adults. She makes $10.88 an hour but can’t get many hours at her part-time job. Her husband earns about $170 a week. Their children watch them get up early to go to work or to find other ways to put food on the table, despite Newt Gingrich’s screed that poor children never see their role models doing anything productive.
“I am not a number, I am not a statistic. I am not a food stamp recipient,” Gaines-Turner told the committee. “I am an individual who lives in the inner city who just so right now happens to be struggling.”
She and her husband want to go back to school but find it difficult to juggle everything.
“We do not want to be looked at as someone who is on welfare and lazy, who wants to sit back and collect benefits. I never wake up and say, my day starts at 7 a.m. in the morning, and say I want to be on public assistance,” she continued. “No one wakes up in the morning and says we want to be [in] poverty, we want to stand in a two-hour line at a food pantry to get to the front just to be told there isn’t any food.”
I remember standing in those lines, too, hoping to get a cardboard box filled with bags of white beans and flour and powered milk and big blocks of what we and my siblings affectionately called “government cheese” that, if sliced just right and placed on bread in the oven made the best cheese toast known to man.
I remember standing in other lines, too, feeling ashamed that my mom had sent me to the local IGA food store to buy groceries with a food stamp coupon book in what were the pre debit card-EBT days. I won’t ever forget how I lingered in the aisles after filling the buggy with items trying to time my appearance in the checkout line so no one would see me try to tear out those damned stapled-in coupons, only to fail every time and have to sheepishly hand it to the cashier as the line of people grew behind me, my secret shame exposed.
Looking back, I still don’t know why I was ashamed. I was a member of a large family. By that time, my biological father had died from heart disease and my mother was on disability, recovering from the abuse she had endured at his hands for several years. She had also remarried, this time to a man who didn’t balk at the presence of so many young mouths to feed. He worked every day, most of the time on either 10- or 12-hour shifts.
My mother was adamant that we take our educations seriously, and every free moment outside of school activities made sure we worked, either helping my step-father build extra rooms onto our tin can of a single-wide trailer, repairing cars, making day-long runs with the neighborhood trash man, picking cucumber and tobacco in the summer, working at McDonald’s on the short-lived pizza joint down the street.
We were poor. We worked, and worked constantly. And we, like Gaines-Turner, still needed help to make ends meet. And though we lived in the South, we didn’t own a hammock.
That’s the part of the story I’ve been urged to stop sharing, the needing public assistance portion. I’ve heard it from countless of my more conservative readers. They, like Ryan and Romney and Santorum and Gingrich and so many others, believe needing public help is a sign of weakness, a character defect and should never be encouraged, even unintentionally.
Neither do they want me to tell you about other families I’ve come across in almost two decades of reporting, the poor women who forever swore of public assistance because of the shame associated with it. They, instead, either married or lived with their children’s fathers long term and worked ungodly hours at multiple part-time jobs, leaving little time for day-to-day parenting and interaction, the kind Romney’s wife could take for granted.
Their kids, in many cases, were left to raise each other and too often were felled by the street violence it was too hard to avoid without proper, vigilant guidance – the kind their parents couldn’t provide because they spent so many hours at low or minimum wage jobs so as to not to be painted as a caricature, as just another lazy, poor person looking to receive something for nothing.
Those who have chided me for no longer being ashamed of my food stamps past have urged me to tell the rest of my story, though. They love it when I write about being able to survive relatively unscathed from an environment in which too many of my friends, and some of my brothers, failed to. They love it when I say I read a lot and loved math and cherished school and graduated in the top five of my high school class and got into an elite private college and just spent the past year on fellowship at Harvard University, where I’m teaching a journalism class this summer.
“See,” they’ve told me a thousand times, “you are proof that the American dream works. If only more people took advantage of the opportunity and stopped making excuses.”
They don’t want me to remind you that I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps, that I made mistakes and got unearned breaks. They don’t want to be reminded that free school lunches and the women with children’s program and Pell grants and government cheese and social security survivor benefits – and food stamps – helped underwrite my American dream, that without that I assistance, I, too, could have been a statistic Gaines-Turner proudly said she isn’t.
I know why they don’t want me to tell me that part of my story, because it would expose their well-rehearsed but mythical accounts of “I did this all on my own” tales of success birthed only by the sweat of their brow.
They don’t have to talk about the built-in largesse prominent families such as Ryan’s benefited from, even when tragedy struck. They don’t have to let people know about how a tax and bankruptcy system rigged for the rich allows them to make mistakes time and time again and recover in ways poor people like Gaines-Turner aren’t allowed to.
That’s why millionaire Ted Cruz can deliver a 20-hour speech on the floor of the Senate railing against the Affordable Care Act, health reform designed to shrink the inequality gap, without once mentioning that rich people like him receive government assistance, too. Only, his assistance isn’t derived as handouts that will make him dependent. It comes in the form of benign-sounding tax credits and subsidies that help make possible the generous “private” health insurance plan he receives through his wife’s Wall Street job – often a bigger individual bite of the federal dole than that given to poor Medicaid recipients.
And they didn’t even want an actual poor person speaking before an anti-poverty hearing, only reluctantly letting Gaines-Turner speak after much prodding. They knew, like the conservative readers who don’t me to tell my full story, that their superficial, misleading characterizations of the poor, would be exposed for what they were, the ramblings of fortunate men who would rather ignore the complexity of actual humanity, not the morphed versions of their imaginations.
“We need to break the cycle. We need to make sure that we all remember what the American dream is, values, family values,” Gaines-Turner told the committee. “I work just as hard as anybody in this room.”