Paul Ryan Won’t Let Poor People Testify at Hearing About Poverty

Written by Bryce Covert

On Wednesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) will hold a hearing on poverty called “A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Lessons from the Frontlines.” While it will feature three experts, none of them are actually low-income Americans who struggle to get by.

But that’s not for lack of trying from some poor people themselves. Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy project that shares the stories of low-income Americans, has tried and failed twice to have some of their members who live in poverty speak at Ryan’s poverty hearings. “When Ryan had his first hearing last July,” Director Mariana Chilton told ThinkProgress, “we wrote to his office to see if we could testify, but they weren’t interested.” While Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) tried to get one of their low-income members to speak, it was too late. They were asked to submit written testimony instead.

Chilton’s organization stayed in touch with his office and immediately called his press team when they saw the announcement for Wednesday’s hearing. “They said, ‘It’s too late, we’ve already chosen our people.’” There was one slot left to be filled by Democrats, but that went to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. “I think Marian Wright Edelman is a great choice,” Chilton said. But “they had a stronger interest in having a more well-known person to testify.” That means that once again, the hearing won’t feature anyone who really is on the frontlines of poverty. “None of the people who are testifying today are currently living in poverty and it’s unclear if they really know what’s going on from the perspective of people living in it,” she said.

And the written testimonies they submitted will probably do little to impact the conversation. “They’re submitted and they disappear,” Chilton said. Tianna Gaines-Turnersent in a document last year, and this year Barbie Izquierdo hasdone the same. “If you look at the July hearing for the War on Poverty, you don’t see evidence of Tianna Gaines-Turner’s submitted testimony,” she added. It’s not in the Congressional record or on the hearing’s website, despite her requests to his office that they include the document, and Izquierdo’s will probably meet the same fate. “Asking for formal written testimony is a way to let Paul Ryan’s office off the hook,” she said.

It’s also worth remembering that one of the three people who will testify has some controversial opinions about anti-poverty programs. Bishop Shirley Holloway, founder of the House of Help City of Hope,said, “You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”

Ryan’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Those who wanted to testify aren’t happy about being excluded. “I think that’s just another poor excuse,” Gaines-Turner, married mother of three struggling to make ends meet, said. “You say you want to speak to someone who’s experienced frontline poverty, but you have no one there who’s actually experienced poverty first hand.” She said that she’s grateful for the opportunity to submit written testimony, but she said, “On the panel you have experts on hunger and poverty, but I’m the true expert. I’m the one who lives these daily struggles every day, who runs out of money at the end of the month every month, has faced homelessness, hunger, poverty.” And she added, “Not to knock the people that are there, but if you want to really understand, you need to speak to the people themselves firsthand. We’re real people, not just numbers.”

Gaines-Turner has certainly experienced these things. “I know what it’s like to use your stove to heat your home,” she said. She knows how dangerous that can be. But she also has young children six-year-old twins and a son who is nine who all have medical disabilities and need to be kept warm in winter.

Izquierdo, who was the first mother to join Witnesses to Hunger, regretted she wouldn’t be at the hearing. “Speaking is one of the most important things you can do,” she said. “You can write something, but there’s something different when you’re telling your story and they’re seeing your face and attaching your emotions to the written word.” She hopes a message can come across from her written testimony. “One of the most important things to take away from what was written is that people who are asking for the help actually need the help, and that these programs can work and people on public assistance can be productive citizens, we just need a chance,” she said. “We just need to be looked at as human beings.”

She’s now in school full time, studying criminal justice with the goal of one day being a funeral director and leaving a business to her children. But she has had direct experience with public programs. When she lost her job, she turned to food stamps. “It became the only source of income I had to provide food for my children,” she said. “If I didn’t have it I don’t know what I would have done, I had no other choice and no other option.”

For Chilton, these experiences are why it’s important to have low-income people testify. “They can talk about the shortcomings of federal programs,” while experts “cannot get it across as well as people who are low-income and actually living it,” she said. Poor Americans “have a vested interest.”

This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons


Jim Ven
Jim Ven7 months ago

thanks for the article.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson2 years ago

Susi M. is right, give her green stars!!!

Anyone who votes for Paul Ryan is not poor, female, or both.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H.2 years ago

Susi M. - Exactly what I was going to say. You are so right.

Susi Matthews
Susi Matthews2 years ago

Well, of COURSE they're not letting any poor people speak.

Why should they? They don't allow women on the committee determining women's issues so why should they want to listen to poor people speak, so many of whom are oh, WOMEN.

Ashley heffner
Ashley heffner2 years ago

Paul Ryan, you should hook up with Sarah Palin. Then you can both talk about how great you are all day and leave the rest of the country alone.

Ashley heffner
Ashley heffner2 years ago

I just can't resist a metaphorical nut shot against this man, everyday.

Scott J.
Scott Johnson2 years ago

Where is the petition to Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republicans in Congress to have them invite the people to testify that have to live with their decisions. Or better yet, when do we elect somebody else into office that has a clue about living in this country instead of being an elitist SOB.

Ashley heffner
Ashley heffner2 years ago

I want Paul Ryan to do that food stamp challenge or better yet a minimum wage challenge. Have him live off that for a month. Then he can talk about being lazy.

Ashley heffner
Ashley heffner2 years ago

Thanks Barbara. :)

Barbara DeFratis
Barbara DeFratis2 years ago

"^_^ Anyone else hope that the Black Caucus (spelling?) embarrasses him so badly, that he never pops out of his cave again?" Ashley H.

Yes!!!!!!!!!!! If Only I could Give you a second Green Star--I would. Almost as much as I would love to see this ___ get his come upance. I only pity the poor mud that gets stuck on his face.