Fifty years after former president Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., convened a panel of policy experts and social justice advocates to Capitol Hill Wednesday to give lawmakers a progress report on how the battle is going.
Not well, they said, with 46 million people living below the poverty line – the highest number since the "war" began.
Absent from the panel, however, was anyone actually living in poverty, a detail not missed by a number of groups in the field.
"It would have been great if someone living in poverty could have been part of this panel, and talked about where programs were lacking, and the impact on them and their kids," says Kate Scully, a policy analyst at the Center for Hunger Free Communities.
"Hearing from recipients of programs just makes sense – [it's] more balanced," Boston-based mental health advocate and disability benefits lawyer Jennifer Leahy wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., urged the House Budget Committee Sunday in an appearance on MSNBC to invite a person struggling with poverty to speak as a witness at the hearing. Lee suggested Tianna Gaines-Turner, a woman living in poverty and a member of Witnesses to Hunger, a Philadelphia-based group that encourages impoverished women to share their stories.
The Nation reports that Ryan declined to invite Gaines-Turner, but said she could submit written testimony.
Republicans, the majority party in the House, invited three witnesses to the panel Wednesday, all policy experts: Eloise Anderson, the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Jon Baron, the president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy and Douglas Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.
William Allison, a spokesman for the House Budget Committee, defended the committee's panel choices and their decision not to include a witness currently living in poverty. In an e-mail, Allison pointed to a Reason story which states: "[Eloise] Anderson developed her views not based on abstract theory, however correct, but from seeing the workings of the system day in and day out and its effects on people... Before rising to run Wisconsin's welfare system, she had actually been in the system herself."
Democrats, the minority party in the House, had one witness: Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic advocacy group, and better known for her social justice organization "Nuns on the Bus."
Campbell sought to share the perspective of people currently living in poverty with lawmakers Wednesday, asking them at one point to "meet Billy from Milwaukee," who she said uses the federal food stamps program (SNAP) to feed his children during the day and a church food bank to feed them at night.
"From my perspective cutting SNAP is wrong morally," she argued. "[It] is a lifeline to millions of Americans."