On Tuesday, at a House Budget Committee hearing entitled “Poverty in America: Economic Realities of Struggling Families,” 10 Republican congressmen participated—all men, all white. A few of them shared their own stories of rising from poverty, including Ohio’s Bill Johnson, who said he was born on a mule farm with no indoor plumbing. His family went to the store once a month “to get sugar and salt—if we had the money to do it. Everything else came from the sweat of our brow and the toil of our hands.” His mother worked “three or four jobs.” His father was an alcoholic, he said, so they moved a lot—wherever his mother could find work—and Johnson attended 13 schools in 12 years.
Then Johnson pivoted to challenge the testimony of two of the hearing’s witnesses, the Reverend Drs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, who’d called on the committee to tackle poverty as a moral imperative. “I been a Christian since I was 10 years old,” Johnson responded. “I don’t find anywhere in the scripture where Jesus said that it was Caesar’s job to feed the poor, and to clothe the widows, and take care of the orphans. It’s the church’s responsibility, the community’s responsibility, your neighbor’s responsibility, it’s your responsibility to do those things.”
Reverend Barber shook his head and closed his eyes.
Johnson then turned to Republican witness, Pastor David Mahan, founder of Frontline Youth Communications, and asked him to testify about the effect a strong father figure can have on a youth’s ability to overcome poverty and succeed.
It was a pattern that would repeat itself during the three-hour hearing. A Republican congressman would talk about his own success in overcoming poverty, and then question whether people understood the value of hard work, or the need for father figures, or were corrupted by the “well-intentioned” War on Poverty that to their mind had failed—though research indicates the poverty rate would be about twice as high today without the safety net. Ultimately, the hearing featured a tired argument about whether the government had a role to play in addressing economic insecurity, or if that was the responsibility of individuals and private organizations. Reverend Barber would later tell The Nation, “I [wept] for the nation when I came out of this hearing today. You can bring in a plan, let people know that they have millions of people in their own state who are poor, and they still see through a racial lens, and they still resist addressing it, and they still tell the same old lie that if people just work harder…”
Later in the hearing, Reverend Barber took on Johnson’s assertion about Christian teachings as well as his framing. “First of all, it’s interesting that you would define yourself as Caesar,” he said. “Next, you haven’t read the 2,000 scriptures in the Bible that talk about how societies are supposed to treat the poor, the immigrant, the least of these. And you don’t know that Jesus started his first sermon with the Good News to the ptochos—a Greek word that means ‘those who have been made poor by economic systems’…. It is bothersome that in the 21st century we still have these weak, tired old mythologies. See the people [in poverty]! Stop just talking about how you know poverty and hear what these folks are saying, and put together a full plan to deal with this issue.”
That, in fact, was exactly what the Poor People’s Campaign had come to the hearing to do—to deliver a budget proposal laying out how the nation can afford to meet the needs of the 140 million people who are living in poverty or one emergency away from poverty. The hearing also gave lawmakers the opportunity to hear testimony from Poor People’s Campaign members Callie Greer, Kenia Alcocer, and Savannah Kinsey, who spoke about their personal experiences of poverty.
The conclusions these three witnesses drew from their own history differed significantly from those of Republican committee members like Johnson. Greer spoke of watching her daughter deteriorate and eventually die of breast cancer with no health insurance in Alabama, one of the 14 states that have refused to expand Medicaid. “How much would you pay to have your baby saved?” she asked. She noted that the federal cost of expanding Medicaid in the 14 states would be approximately $25 billion in the first year, “about the same amount the Pentagon hands over to Boeing every year.”
Alcocer spoke of her life as an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States when she was 5 years old. She now lives in Los Angeles with the fear that “immigration officers might come and take me away, and that my child will be ripped from my arms.” She urged the members of the Budget Committee to use their “tremendous power to shift US priorities.” She hoped they might decide that “it’s more important to put children into Head Start than into detention centers.” She noted that a corporation last year got $234 million for beds for children in detention centers, enough “to fund Head Start for more than 26,000 children.” She said that while President Trump claims immigrants “steal jobs and public-assistance money,” the Congressional Budget Office found that accepting more immigrants and creating a path for undocumented people to get legal status would result in benefits that outweigh costs by $20 billion annually.
Finally, 22-year-old Savannah Kinsey talked of the loss of jobs in her hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and the overdose epidemic that has taken the lives of a few of her friends. She said one of her friends was in and out of jail because of drug use but was never able to obtain treatment. She died two years ago at age 26, leaving behind a 4-year-old daughter. Kinsey is now focused on fighting for universal health care with an advocacy organization called Put People First! PA. She noted that while Conemaugh Hospital in Johnstown got a one-out-of-five star rating from Medicare.gov, the CEO of the corporation that owns it made more than $13 million in 2017. “Nobody should get that rich off a health-care system that is not even working,” she said.
After more than two hours of testimony and five rounds of questions from members on both sides of the aisle, Reverend Theoharis admonished both parties for not asking these three witnesses any questions. “I’m stunned,” she said. “We’ve pulled a group of testifiers who are deeply, personally impacted by these problems, they are in the room, and people are not talking to them. People are not asking questions about how are we going to solve this problem? And then people are being blamed for the problems that society has caused. It feels very important to me to say that we need a real serious conversation in this country, led by those who are most impacted.”
Congressman Kevin Hern (R-OK) then proceeded to tell his story of growing up in “extraordinary poverty” and finding “that the only way out was to work my tail off.”
After the hearing, Kinsey told The Nation, “I wish they had asked me about the hospital system in our area. Because that really is a ‘profits over people’ situation. And I wanted to talk about how you shouldn’t be ashamed to be poor, or to need public assistance. I kind of expected them not to ask us questions though, because they don’t want to hear about poverty.”