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I Want to Take Congressman Paul Ryan for a Ride

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Real poverty experts

When one of the most powerful men in our nation’s Capitol wants to do something important, I have to wonder why he neglects to do it right.

Congressman Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, recently convened a hearing ambitiously entitled , War on Poverty: Progress Report, ostensibly to consider funding priorities to help 46 million+ impoverished families.

Greg Kaufmann adeptly covers the hearing, including the dissing of one of the most respected social justice advocates, and solo witness on the Democratic side, Sister Simone Campbell, by a clueless, cantankerous Tennessee Republican woman, Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

I’d like to offer Mr. Ryan one suggestion, a critical one, to help this diligent Congressman do his job a little better.  It’s a simple thing, and it won’t cost him anything.

Listen. Listen to those who are the true experts in hunger, homelessness, and poverty.

No one living in poverty was on the panel. Some of the “experts” didn’t know much about poverty, like the guy unclear on what minimum wage was, and the guy hung up on family values.

Invaluable testimony, submitted in writing, likely never to see the committee’s eyes, would shed a different light on this vexing issue. Tianna Gaines-Turner, a married mother of 3, submitted her insights on behalf of millions of struggling families, including this nugget of wisdom, 

“Poverty is not just one issue that can be solved at one time. It’s not just an issue of jobs, or food, or housing, or utility assistance, and safety. It’s a people issue. And you can’t slice people up into issues. We are whole human beings. Poverty has to do with a whole person who is in a family, in a neighborhood, in a community, and our country.”

Seeing school personnel struggling to understand homeless students impelled me to start my nonprofit, HEAR US Inc., back in 2005. Since I had worked with homeless families for decades, I felt I grasped at least the basics of their plight, but some educators and school administrators seemed to lack compassion and didn’t realize how important school was for our nation’s now 1-million+ homeless students.

My approach, after-the-fact brilliantly simple, was to interview kids across the land who knew homelessness firsthand. You can watch a 4-min. trailer of My Own Four Walls, my 20-minute documentary, and decide whether or not these kids qualify as experts.

Since that initial foray, I’ve continued chronicling stories of homelessness from families and youth. To no surprise, their stories contain many of the same threads: job loss, health issues, lack of affordable housing, lack of mental health services, inadequate wages, failing schools, fickle public benefits, as well as pervasive domestic violence, foreclosure, incarceration, neighborhood crime and instability that comprise the slippery slope of poverty.

The consultants at this “hearing” demonstrated an insulting lack of understanding of the underlying issues of poverty. They would have done much better to listen to true experts, like Tianna, the kids from My Own Four Walls, and the 7 women we featured in on the edge: Homeless Families in America, our award-winning feature-length documentary that ran on PBS.

We could fill the hearing room with poverty experts. Many would say the same things, pointing out the flaws of slashing assistance at a time when it needs to be ratcheted up significantly. We could throw in religious leaders, like David R. Henson, who recently asserted, “There is no war on poverty in this country. There is no war on hunger. Instead, there is a war on the poor and a war on the hungry.”