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Living on the Poverty Cliff: Tianna Gaines-Turner Tells Her Story

Tianna Gaines-Turner
Tianna Gaines-Turner. (Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World)

"It’s easier to build a fence at the top of a cliff than drive an ambulance to the bottom." - Art Simon in Writing Hunger into History.

By Robin Stephenson

Tianna Gaines-Turner knows something about cliffs. The working mother of three children has been climbing and falling off the poverty cliff for years.

Gaines-Turner told her story to the House Budget Committee on July 9, during the fifth War on Poverty hearing – a series of hearings exploring how to better address poverty in America. Gaines-Turner, a member of Witness to Hunger, has been the first expert witness invited to testify who lives in poverty.

“We are always trying to climb up. There is a constant climb,” Gaines-Turner said of her and her husband’s struggle to make ends meet with a combined income of roughly $14,000 a year. Federal benefits, such as housing assistance, medical aid, and food stamps, fill in the income gaps so that the Gaines-Turners can care for their children. All three of their kids require daily doses of asthma medicine and their twins suffer from epilepsy. 

Budgeting each month in the Gaines-Turner household is a balancing act. When circumstances change, she feels the “cliff effect.” A small increase in income can decrease the amount of food stamp benefits the family can receive. As she improves her circumstances, with each additional dollar earned she loses needed federal assistance. Yet, she cannot build assets and save for the future in case of hardship.  “If you have savings,” she says, “your caseworker says you are not eligible for programs.” So when a crisis hits, like a reduction in working hours, the Gaines-Turner family slides back down the cliff, never making it to stable ground.

House Budget Committee members differ on their approach to ending poverty. There are those who believe the safety net creates dependency and those who see federal anti-poverty programs as a bridge out of poverty. Asked if she thought federal programs promoted dependency, Gaines-Turner said, “I don’t think anyone ever wants to rely on federal programs. I feel like people do want to go out and get a job.”  Jobs, she noted, can be hard to come by depending on where you live. They also do not always pay a living wage. She went on to respond to notions that poverty was a condition of laziness.  “There is not a lazy bone in my body,” she said. “People put that label on us to put up a smoke screen so they don’t see have to see what is really going on.”

Bread for the World Institute outlined its own plan for ending hunger in America in its 2014 Hunger Report. Bread for the World's strategy stresses policies to reduce unemployment and improve the quality of jobs. It also urges support of a strong safety net, investments in people, and partnerships between community organizations and government programs.

Earlier this year, the House passed the fiscal year 2015 House budget proposal, which makes deep cuts to programs for hungry and poor people in the United States – including cutting food stamps by $125 billion.

The Gaines-Turner family, and millions of working-poor people, need Congress to build a fence at the top of the cliff by funding a strong safety net. At the same time, Congress must also craft policies that lead to living-wage jobs so that families can walk into a better future.

Robin Stephenson is the national lead for social media and senior regional organizer.

 

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