Recently, at the Social Mobility Summit at the Brookings Institution, Representative Paul Ryan declared the War on Poverty a failure. He went on to announce: “Later this year I plan on saying a whole lot more about this subject. But before I lay out any policy prescriptions for poor families, I need to hear more from the real experts—the families themselves.”
He had an opportunity to do just that when Amy Treptow visited Washington, DC, as the winner of the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty Storyteller Contest, sponsored by the Half in Ten campaign and the Coalition on Human Needs. The contest was part of the Our American Story project, which connects people who have experienced poverty with political leaders, media, and advocacy organizations—an ongoing effort to raise the visibility of those who don’t have a high-profile lobby representing their interests during policy debates. (Full disclosure: I am an adviser to the Half in Ten campaign.)
Treptow visited the nation’s capital to share her story with journalists and policymakers. She met with her representative, Mark Pocan; Representative Barbara Lee; and Paul Ryan, whose staff contacted her to set up a meeting.
When Treptow showed up to meet with Ryan, he suggested they take a photo in the corridor in front of the flag where Treptow could tell him a little about herself.
“I let him know that I had become a single mother unexpectedly, and that through the help of Medicaid, Section 8, food stamps and the West CAP [job training] program I was able to get back on my feet, be self-sufficient and own a home again,” she says. “I told him it was important to protect programs that help people.”
“Republicans aren’t against all of those things, despite what you might have heard,” Treptow says Ryan told her.
They snapped the photographs and the congressman said he had to head to his next appointment. Treptow was disappointed. She had heard that Ryan wants to speak with people who have experienced poverty firsthand.
“I was right there,” she says. “He didn’t ask me to elaborate on a single thing. If he’s really thinking about how these programs are working for people, he could have asked something. But I shared as much of my story as I could—whether he chooses to listen or not.”
Treptow’s story is indeed a compelling one. A veteran of the Navy, she says that just six years ago she had “a very good life” with her then-husband and two children in a house that they owned. The family’s income allowed her to stop working full-time as a first grade teacher. She taught reading at the school for three hours a day, worked as a substitute teacher, and did a lot of volunteer work.