What is life like for millions of people in the US who are working—sometimes at two jobs—but still can’t earn enough to meet their families’ basic needs?
Some members of Congress heard firsthand last year. The Trump administration was seeking to change the way poverty was indexed, using a technicality that would reduce not poverty itself, but the numbers the government reported, and thus the appearance of poverty.
In public hearings, a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee heard testimony from Amy Jo Hutchison, a lifelong West Virginian who’s a single mom with two teenage daughters. She’s also a community organizer who advocates “for poor and marginalized folks.”
Hutchison exhorted the legislators to understand that even the existing poverty calculation line was severely out of sync with the actual experiences of the working poor.
I hope you’ll view the video of Hutchison’s testimony and/or read the transcript below.
“Hi. My name is Amy Jo Hutchison. I’m a single mom of two who’s lived in WV all my life. I’m also a community organizer for WV Healthy Kids and Families/Our Future WV, where I organize and advocate for poor and marginalized folks.
“Today, I’m here to help you better understand poverty, because poverty is my lived experience, and to acknowledge the biased beliefs that poor people are lazy and that poverty is their fault, but how do I make you understand things like working full-time for $10/hr is only $19,000 a year even though it’s well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25?
“I want to tell you about a single mom I met who was working at a gas station. She was promoted to manager and within 30 days had to report her new income to DHHR [Department of Health and Human Resources]. Within 60 days, her rent jumped from $475-$950 a month. She lost her SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps] benefits, and her family’s health insurance was gone.
“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 encouraged her kids to get jobs. For her DHHR review, she had to claim their income as well. She lost her SNAP benefits and insurance, so she weaned herself off of her blood pressure meds because she, working full-time at 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 killing their mom.
“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 back of parents and right onto the shoulders of our kids despite how hard we try.
“I can tell you about food insecurity and the nights I went to bed hungry so my kids could have seconds—while I was employed as a Head Start teacher.
“I can tell you about being above the poverty line and nursing your gallbladder with essential oils and prayer, about chewing on cloves and eating ibuprofen like TicTacs for toothaches because you don’t have health insurance and can’t afford a dentist.
“I have 2 jobs and a Bachelor’s Degree and 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 day so my daughter could attend a music competition with her school band.
“I can’t go grocery shopping without a calculator. I had to decide which bills to not pay so I could make this trip. Believe me, I’ve pulled myself up by the bootstraps so many times that I’ve ripped the damn things off!
“The current poverty guidelines are ridiculously out of touch. The poverty line for a family of 3 is $21,720. Where I live, because of the oil and gas boom, a 3 bdrm home rents for $1200 a month, so if I made $22,000, which could disqualify me from assistance, I would have $8000/yr left to raise 2 kids on. And yet the poverty guidelines wouldn’t classify me as poor.
“I Googled ‘Congressman’s salary’ the other day, and, according to Senate.gov, the salary for senators, representatives, and delegates is $174,000 a year. A year of work for you is the equivalent of nearly 4 years of work for me, and I’m about $24,000 above Federal Poverty Guidelines of ‘poor.’ It would take 9 people working full-time for a year at $10/hr. to match your salary.
“I also read that ‘Each Senator is authorized $40,000 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 across the U.S., on behalf of 1 in 3 kids under the age of 5 and the nearly 100,000 kids living in poverty in WV, to not change anything about the Federal Poverty Guidelines until you make them relevant and reflect what poverty really looks like today. You have a $40,000 furniture allotment… WV 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 of the free and reduced lunch roles…62% of WV SNAP recipients are families with children…children who can’t get jobs because their parents will die without health insurance.
“People are working full-time for very little money. They’re not poor enough to receive help and don’t make enough to get by.
“They’re working while they’re rationing insulin and skipping meds because they can’t afford food and health care. Shame on you. Shame on you and shame on me. And shame on every one of us for not rattling the windows with cries of outrage at a government that thinks its offices are worthy of $40,000 a year but families and children aren’t!
“I’m not asking you to apologize for your privilege, but I am 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 government. Thank you.”
Hutchison’s riveting testimony was met with heavy applause. The Subcommittee Chair, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D., VA) said after she’d concluded: “I think we just heard why these hearings are important.”
Since she delivered this testimony, Hutchison has begun an organization called “Rattle the Windows,” which encourages poor people to provide their stories and advocates in their behalf.
From the website:
is a grassroots movement built from the ground up. It’s a space where poor and marginalized folks are the experts, the leaders, who come together to work toward economic justice and equity in our local communities, our state, and our country. We’re organizing to make West Virginia a state built on an infrastructure of care that is focused on our values and our families. We’re turning our pain into power.”
Hutchison is an artful proponent for her cause. I’d like to see the Democrats enlist her as a national spokesperson for the need for much of the Build Back Better legislation that her US Senator, Joe Manchin, has just kiboshed—at least he’s done so for now, in its present form.
It’s worth noting that the benefits of this “human infrastructure” legislation would be felt by a large swath of Americans beyond the 46 million living below the poverty level whom she cited last year.
I saw a snippet of Hutchison, who has personally gained recognition since her 2020 testimony, on Jon Stewart’s new Apple TV show. She shared a panel discussion with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist.
When she observed that the yearly cost of child care in West Virginia is higher than a year of college in the state, Holtz-Eakin noted that affordable child care is also the “leading issue for women” in “solidly Republican districts.”
Hutchison responded: “It shouldn’t be a political issue.”
Indeed, it shouldn’t. We all benefit when we can rely on a stable work force, when children are better fed and educated, and when the extreme stresses of everyday living don’t manifest themselves in the poorer health of individuals and communities.
The engaging Hutchison is clearly reveling in her newfound public persona. In a delightful piece titled “Written All Over My Face,” she writes about the experience of being on Jon Stewart’s show and keeping her appearance a secret until it was announced (hence one aspect of the title of her piece).
She also details her years of hardship, and concludes with the great irony that the attention she’s attracted since her testimony has led to income security for the first time.
“I’ve never known stability in my last 49 years of life until recently, and that came about by being…wait for it…the face of poverty.”
“I’m awkward and OK with the elevated profile to fight poverty. Hopefully, I’ll inspire you to believe you were born for much greater than poverty, too, even if that’s all you see when you look at your face.”
Hutchison and Rattle the Windows are now urging West Virginians to call Manchin and pressure him to support Build Back Better. Child care, family leave, and the child tax credit are the organization’s three current campaigns—all components of the legislation their Senator said he “can’t” support.
The child tax credit has already proven its worth. It’s led to one of the most extraordinary results of the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year–reducing the number of US children living in poverty by nearly half.
Most Western countries have long supported families with such a credit, and many proponents in the US have sought to see it become law for years, especially as income disparities have dramatically increased over the past several decades.
But this sensible, humane legislation is ending, and the encouraging trend will be reversed unless Congress passes the legislation to continue it. The last monthly payments were made in December.
I don’t know if there’s any way to change Senator Manchin’s mind. But among his West Virginia constituents is a very effective advocate for people whose lives can be most dramatically improved by the kind of governmental support that more influential sectors of our society have received for years.
Amy Jo Hutchison is a woman to watch—with gratitude for her hard work.
Note: I learned about Hutchison from Robert Hubbell’s “Today’s Edition” newsletter.