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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

"We are the real experts."

Published:  August 19, 2013
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“If you want to find solutions to the issues that people face while living in poverty, people actually living in poverty need to be part of the discussion when decisions are being made.”

So said Tianna Gaines-Turner in testimony to Paul Ryan and other members of the House Budget Committee in July for their hearing The War on Poverty: A Progress Report. Notably, her voice was not heard during the hearing itself, nor was that of anyone else living in poverty. Instead, it was filed away with the other reams of testimony that are part of the official record but otherwise go unnoticed.

In the absence of the experiences of actual participants, the current debate around the social safety net has been dominated by convenient abstractions—and it shows in the policies that result. Based on little more that flawed stereotypes, numerous states around the country, for example, have subjected TANF recipients to drug tests. The results? Unsurprising. It turns out that there are fewer drug users in this group than in the general population, so there have been very low rates of benefit termination.

Policymaking based on the assumption that it’s people, not programs, that are flawed is insulting to the families in need of assistance-- and often a waste of taxpayer dollars. In this example, states have to pay to administer the test and then reimburse clients who test negative. Florida saw a net loss of over $45,000 when they implemented their universal drug testing program. Despite the overwhelming failure of this practice, mandatory drug testing for SNAP recipients is expected to be included in the House farm bill when Congress returns from its August recess.

Had she been heard, Tianna would have offered a perspective on poverty, what it’s like to struggle to get by, and especially the role of the safety net that contrasted sharply with the one perpetuated by those looking to dismantle those supports. Rather than a comfortable “hammock”, she describes a system that provides critical, but often insufficient or unreliable support: SNAP benefits that cut in and out month to month as income changes, childcare assistance that disappears once a job is found, housing assistance that appears after 10 years on the wait list only to vanish because of misplaced forms. In her words:

“Just when someone is moving forward, the rug is ripped out from under them. The cycle pushes families deeper into poverty than they were before they took the job. This system needs to change in order for people like myself to forge a better future for myself and my children, one where I will never need to turn to public assistance again.”

One way to help families rely less on this broken system: Invest in building assets.

“All families need opportunities to build their own safety net. I only got my first bank account a few years ago. Now I am saving money for my kids to go to college. Lots of low-income families need more access to low cost or free banking accounts so we can get a hand in the financial mainstream. We also need to be allowed to save while we are receiving assistance, not be kicked off for just having a little more than nothing.” 

We would agree. It’s ironic, then, that the people maligning the safety net could actually make families more reliant on it by undermining their ability to save. When Congress returns from its summer recess, the House is expected to introduce its version of the nutrition title of the Farm Bill. Among the $40 billion in cuts will be a provision that eliminates the ability of states to raise their asset limits for SNAP over the $2,000 federal floor, or “a little more than nothing.” Since lottery winners on SNAP are even less common that drug users on TANF(and would be explicitly ineligible under the Senate passed version), asset limits do little to improve the integrity of the program and can end up costing states valuable time and money. Encouraging, rather than penalizing, savings would not only help the bottom line of the families using these programs, it could help the bottom line of the programs themselves.

Moving forward, including Tianna and other policy experts in these discussions over the safety net would inject valuable insights from people who have actually experienced those programs. It would also serve as a much-needed acknowledgement that families are at the other end of these debates and that the voices of people being impacted deserve to be part of the conversation. Thanks to Greg Kauffman and This Week in Povertyfor elevating Tianna’s testimony to our attention.

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