This article originally appeared on 03.10.20
Nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population lives in poverty. That’s more than one in ten Americans—and the percent is even higher for children.
If you’re not up on the current numbers, the federal poverty line is $12,760 for an individuals and $26,200 for a family of four. If those annual incomes sound abysmally low, it’s because they are. And incredibly, the Trump administration has proposed lowering the poverty line further, which would make more poor Americans ineligible for needed assistance.
However, debates over the poverty line don’t even capture the full extent of Americans struggling to make ends meet. For many people, living above the poverty line is actually worse. These are the folks who make too much to qualify for aid programs but not enough to actually get by—a situation millions of working American families find themselves stuck in.
Amy Jo Hutchison is a single mother of two living in West Virginia, and a community organizer for West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families and Our Future West Virginia. She has also lived in poverty and been part of the working poor herself. In an impassioned speech, she spoke to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about what poverty really looks like for working families—and even called out Congress for being completely out of touch with what it takes for a family to live on while they’re spending $40,000 a year on office furniture.
Watch Hutchison’s testimony here (transcript included below):
“I’m here to help you better understand poverty because poverty is my lived experience. And I’m also here to acknowledge the biased beliefs that poor people are lazy and the poverty is their fault. But how do I make you understand things like working full-time for $10 an hour is only about $19,000 a year, even though it’s well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour?
I want to tell you about a single mom I met who was working at a gas station. She was promoted to manager within 30 days. She had to report her new income the DHHR within 60 days. Her rent bumped from $475 to $950 a month, she lost her SNAP benefits and her family’s health insurance, so she did what poor people are forced to do all the time. She resigned her promotion and went back to working part-time, just so she and her family could survive.
Another single mom I know encouraged her kids to get jobs. For her DHHR review she had to claim their income as well. She lost her SNAP benefits and her insurance, so she weaned herself off of her blood pressure medicines because she—working full-time in a bank and part-time at a shop on the weekends—couldn’t afford to buy them. Eventually the girls quit their jobs because their part-time fast food income was literally killing their mother.
You see the thing is children aren’t going to escape poverty as long as they’re relying on a head of household who is poor. Poverty rolls off the backs of parents, right onto the shoulders of our children, despite how hard we try.
I can tell you about my own with food insecurity the nights I went to bed hungry so my kids could have seconds, and I was employed full time as a Head Start teacher. I can tell you about being above the poverty guideline, nursing my gallbladder with essential oils and prayer, chewing on cloves and eating ibuprofen like they’re Tic Tacs because I don’t have health insurance and I can’t afford a dentist. I have two jobs and a bachelor’s degree, and I struggle to make ends meet.
The federal poverty guidelines say that I’m not poor, but I cashed in a jar full of change the other night so my daughter could attend a high school band competition with her band. I can’t go grocery shopping without a calculator. I had to decide which bills not to pay to be here in this room today. Believe me, I’ve pulled myself up by the bootstraps so many damn times that I’ve ripped them off.
The current poverty guidelines are ridiculously out of touch. The poverty line for a family of three is $21,720. Where I live, because of the oil and gas boom, a 3-bedroom home runs for $1,200 a month. So if I made $22,000 a year, which could disqualify me from assistance, I would have $8000 left to raise two children and myself on. And yet the poverty guidelines wouldn’t classify me as poor.
I Googled ‘congressman salary’ the other day and according to Senate gov the salary for Senators representatives and delegates is $174,000 a year so a year of work for you is the equivalent of almost four years of work for me. I’m $24,000 above the federal poverty guidelines definition of poor. It would take nine people working full-time for a year at $10 an hour to match y’all’s salary. I also read that each senator has authorized $40,000 dollars for state office furniture and furnishings, and this amount is increased each year to reflect inflation.
That $40,000 a year for furniture is $360 more than the federal poverty guidelines for a family of seven, and yet here I am begging you on behalf of the 15 million children living in poverty in the United States—on behalf of the one in three kids under the age of five and nearly 100,000 children in my state of West Virginia living in poverty—to not change anything about these federal poverty guidelines until you can make them relevant and reflect what poverty really looks like today.
You have a $40,000 dollar furniture allotment. West Virginia has a median income of $43,000 and some change. People are working full-time and are hungry. Kids are about to be kicked off the free and reduced lunch rolls because of changes y’all want to make to SNAP, even though 62 percent of West Virginia SNAP recipients are families with children—the very same children who cannot take a part-time job because their parents will die without insurance. People are working full-time in this country for very little money.
They’re not poor enough to get help. They don’t make enough to get by. They’re working while their rationing their insulin and their skipping their meds because they can’t afford food and healthcare at the same time.
So shame on you. Shame on you, and shame on me, and shame on each and every one of us who haven’t rattled the windows of these buildings with cries of outrage at a government that thinks their office furniture is worthy of $40,000 a year and families and children aren’t.
I’m not asking you to apologize for your privilege but I’m asking you to see past it. There are 46 million Americans living in poverty doing the best they know how with what they have and we, in defense of children and families, cannot accept anything less from our very own government.”
In addition to Hutchison’s testimony, a coalition of 26 patient organizations, including the American Cancer Society Action Network, American Heart Association, and United Way, wrote a joint letter opposing the proposed lowering of the poverty line, stating:
“The current Official Poverty Measure (OPM) is based on an old formula that already does not fully capture those living in poverty and does not accurately reflect basic household expenses for families, including by underestimating child care and housing expenses. The proposed changes to the inflation calculation would reduce the annual adjustments to the poverty measure and therefore may exacerbate existing weaknesses, putting vulnerable Americans – including those with serious and chronic diseases – at great risk. Further lowering the poverty line would also give policymakers and the public less credible information about the number and characteristics of Americans living in poverty.”