The first-person account last week of Darlena Cunha, a former television producer who drove her husband’s 2003 Mercedes one day to pick up food coupons from WIC, struck a nerve with the public and went viral.
Yet the testimony of an “actual poor person” at a Congressional budget hearing chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) on poverty Wednesday was largely ignored by the mainstream media, even though the comments of Tianna Gaines-Turner provide insight into the life of the working poor.
Unlike Cunha, Gaines-Turner has never owned a car. She takes the bus and a cab to buy groceries. Unlike some of Cunha’s friends, she understands why they kept the Mercedes. “It’s something he [Cunha's husband] worked hard for and it provided transportation,” she said, empathizing with hauling around twins.
But Gaines-Turner didn’t agree with Cunha’s comment, “This wasn’t supposed to happen to people like me.”
“Why is she any different?” Gaines-Turner asked. “No one wakes up and says I want to live in poverty. It can happen in a blink of an eye. People are laid off every day…their safety net goes down the drain.”
One in seven Americans live in poverty, according to 2012 census figures. That’s 46.5 million Americans. More than one-third of them are children, and 5 million more women than men are poor.
At the heart of each woman’s story of struggling through hard times is the necessity of dealing with society’s attitudes toward taking public assistance.
“People are very judgmental,” Gaines-Turner told me. “I wish they could walk in my shoes for one day and I wonder, could they do it? Without pulling their hair out by the roots?”
As Cunha wrote, “We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.” She admits she was her own worst critic.
Both women have valid stories to tell since poverty, it turns out, is not one-size-fits-all. In fact, experts describe at least three different types of poverty.
Cunha’s financial hard times began with job losses, medical bills and mortgage payments for a home that lost value when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Her experience is the “there but for the grace of God” variety, and many of us in the struggling middle class are much closer to the possibility of poverty than we find comfortable.
I know. My first piece for She the People detailed my husband’s layoffs when computer programming jobs were shipped overseas and we faced months of unemployment. I applied for free lunch benefits for my son and visited my church’s food pantry.
That’s what the experts call “situational” poverty, and it’s often temporary.
Gaines-Turner, a member of Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy project that includes those who’ve experienced poverty first-hand, and her husband both hold down jobs. As she said during the hearing, “There’s not a lazy bone in my body.”
A high school graduate, she was raised by a single mom. “I was a latch-key kid,” she said. Her mom never went on federal assistance. And Gaines-Turner hopes her kids never have to.
It wasn’t until Gaines-Turner became a mother herself — she has a 10-year-old son and 6-year-old twins — that she sought help.
She and her husband are the working-class poor. They’re struggling with what some call “economical poverty.” The low-paying jobs they have simply can’t cover all of their basic expenses. Their annual income, which fluctuates, is below the $27,910 set by the federal poverty guidelines for a family of five.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash) got to the heart of the issue when he pointed out that those on the committee make around $170,000 a year, as he quizzed Gaines-Turner on her budget. She said she makes $10.88 an hour at a seasonal job doing childcare in a recreation center while her husband earns $8.25 an hour at a grocery store. Their take-home pay is around $300 a week. Neither can find employment with full-time hours and benefits. They’ve been homeless twice. Their three children have asthma and seizure disorders; when one is sick, a parent has to take time off from work and lose pay.
“Each individual’s poverty looks different,” said Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Fort Worth, Tex., who also testified at Wednesday’s budget hearing. She described “chronic” poverty as resulting “from a combination of factors, such as age, mental illness or a significant disability.” Those people often need some sort of assistance throughout their lives.
“Generational” poverty may come closer to fitting the stereotypes held by some people. Two or more generations have lived in poverty. “It is passed down from parent to child,” Reynolds said. And it becomes “a mindset of living in the moment…(it) has its own culture, hidden rules and belief systems.”
It becomes tough to escape.
You can expand the definition of poverty to include “absolute” or “extreme” — people who literally have nothing. They’re homeless. They’re starving.
Sometimes that seems like the only definition of poverty accepted by Americans. And even then they believe that if these “lazy folks” would only go out and find a job, they’d have no problem.
“I think people say ‘she’s lazy’ or ‘he’s lazy’ as a smokescreen so they don’t have to look at what exactly is going on,” Gaines-Turner said.
Both Cunha and Gaines-Turner have faced the stigma our society puts on the poor. “That’s the funny thing about being poor,” wrote Cunha. “Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone feels entitled to share.”
That judgmental attitude runs through many of the 5,000-plus comments left on Cunha’s article for The Post. You can see it, too, in some of the congressmen who questioned Gaines-Turner during the budget hearing, particularly Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) who interrupted her attempts to answer when he quizzed her on a “theoretical” plan to increase federal assistance plans by 500 percent that he believed would still fail to break “the cycle of dependency.”
When Gaines-Turner said her job lasts for just six months of the year, he asked, “And is that by choice so you can spend more time with your kids the other six months or have you tried to get other employment?” She countered that “health issues” had kept her from finding a full-time job.
He also wanted to know if her volunteer position as a ward leader in Philadelphia was partisan; she told him she was a Democrat.
“I shouldn’t be talked down to and I shouldn’t be looked down on as someone who just wants to come in and rely on government programs because that’s not true,” Gaines-Turner said in response to questioning from Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas).
Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all poverty, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, either.
But the answer starts with jobs, Gaines-Turner believes. Enough jobs for people who are looking for work. Jobs that pay decently. “Why do they call it a minimum wage, why not offer a living wage?” she asked me.
She has other suggestions as well: Jobs that offer benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave, affordable childcare, investment in educational opportunities and promotion of savings so families create their own safety net.
In the meantime, Gaines-Turner and Cunha have put a face on poverty.
Maybe they’ve even helped shatter some of the stereotypes.