Working mother Tianna Gaines-Turner joined Melissa Harris-Perry Sunday for her first television interview since becoming the first individual living in poverty to testify at one of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s committee hearings on the issue.
Three days before Rep. Ryan held his first "The War on Poverty: A Progress Report" budget committee meeting last summer, both Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)and Gaines-Turner joined host Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss the reality of living on a minimum wage. During the conversation, Rep. Lee said that she was sitting on Ryan’s committee, and that there would be hearing the following Wednesday to talk about poverty. "I’m going to ask him if you can come," she told Gaines-Turner. “I’m going to ask Congressman Ryan to invite you as a witness."
She did, but no invitation arrived to appear in person. Gaines-Turner was instead offered the opportunity to submit written testimony.
Rep. Lee continued pushing for Gaines-Turner’s voice to be included in the committee hearings. Almost one year later, her efforts were realized. Last week, the mother of three traveled to Washington, DC to provide testimony about her lived experience as a working mother whose income falls below the poverty line, and who has faced the very real repercussions of continual cuts to benefit programs. Gaines-Turner is one of the nearly 47 million people in the United States who utilize SNAP benefits to support themselves or their families. In 2014, those benefits averaged to only $126.15 each month for an individual – close to four dollars a day.
“I hope they walked away with an understanding,” Gaines-Turner said on Sunday's show. “The understanding that this is a problem, and it’s not going to go away."
During the hearing, explained that individuals were still struggling in the recovering economy to find well-paying jobs, and relied on programs like SNAP to support themselves. Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) responded:
“All I’m saying is if you rely on federal programs you’ll never get out of poverty. The only way out of poverty is to be self-reliant and find yourself a job.”
Gaines-Turner, on Sunday, called that type of discourse a "smoke-screen," used "so they can sleep at night, so that they can look down on me and people like me." She said she hoped those legislators present "walked away with an understanding that we are not lazy; we are independent." She told Harris-Perry she felt she was heard during her testimony.
Rep. Lee expressed criticism of Rep. Rice’s comments. "When Republicans respond like that, it’s almost as if they’re living in another world," she told the host. "The majority of people such as Tianna who need a safety net to help them, it’s a bridge over troubled water. The majority of people don’t want public assistance; they want to work, they want a good, paying job.
“Republicans who believe that people rely on government subsidies, some think they’re lazy," Rep. Lee added. "Well, I think Tianna proves that she works hard, her husband works hard, they juggle their lives, and they’re trying to take care of their children and trying to live the American dream just like everyone else.”
During her testimony, Gaines-Turner told Congressional leaders:
"I am not a number. I am not a statistic... I am an individual who lives in the inner city who just so happens to be, right now, struggling, just like so many Americans are struggling."
After being thanked for opening the door to Gaines-Turner's testimony, Rep. Lee echoed the sentiment.
"Let me just say how proud I am of Tianna. She was clear, bold, smart, confident, and I tell you, she spoke for millions of Americans," Lee said. "So, thank you, Tianna. Continue to raise your voice and make sure that policy makers especially hear what it means to juggle and to live on such minimal wages. Here you are working, and your husband’s working, and you’re living off of barely 16 thousand dollars a year. That is a shame and disgrace. We’ve got to do better."