Earlier today, the House of Representatives passed President Biden’s Build Back Better economic recovery legislation—which includes historic and long-overdue investments in child care, pre-K, home care for people with disabilities and seniors, an extension of the monthly expanded child tax credit, and more.
But Democratic leaders caution that the bill still faces immense hurdles in the Senate: namely, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Senator Manchin—who has been wielding outsized influence throughout the entirety of the year’s Build Back Better debate by withholding the critical fiftieth vote Democrats need for the package to pass in the Senate—told CNN as recently as Thursday of this week that he still has not decided whether to even support a vote to proceed with the legislation, a critical first step for the Senate to take up the measure once the House passes the bill.
So for this week’s Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat down with two of the West Virginia moms and organizers behind a movement they call Rattle the Windows for a look at what West Virginia families really want from their leaders in Washington in this critical moment—as something of an open letter to Senator Manchin. Amy Jo Hutchison is a West Virginia-born-and-raised grassroots organizer for economic justice who organizes poor families, primarily single moms. She’s also the founder of Rattle the Windows. And Megan Hullinger is a West Virginia mother of four, former AmeriCorps member, and community outreach specialist who describes herself as an “accidental activist” after getting involved with Rattle the Windows.
Learn more about and get involved with Rattle the Windows at:
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. As the House of Representatives inches closer to passing President Biden’s Build Back Better economic recovery legislation—which includes historic and long overdue investments in child care, pre-K, home care for people with disabilities and seniors, an extension of the monthly expanded child tax credit, and more—Democratic leaders caution that the bill still faces immense hurdles in the Senate, namely West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
Senator Manchin, who has been wielding outsized influence throughout the entirety of this year’s Build Back Better debate by withholding the critical 50th vote Democrats need for the package to pass in the Senate, told CNN as recently as Thursday of this week that he still has not decided whether to even support a vote to proceed with the legislation, a critical first step for the Senate to take up the measure once the House passes the bill.
So, for this week’s Off-Kilter, I sat down with two of the West Virginia moms and organizers behind a movement they call Rattle the Windows for a look at what West Virginia families really want from their leaders in Washington in this critical moment. Consider it something of an open letter to Senator Joe Manchin.
Amy Jo Hutchison is a West Virginia-born-and-raised grassroots organizer for economic justice who organizes poor families, primarily single moms. She’s also the founder of Rattle the Windows. And Megan Hullinger is a West Virginia mother of four, former AmeriCorps member, and community outreach specialist who describes herself as an accidental activist after getting involved with Rattle the Windows. Let’s take a listen.
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VALLAS: Amy Jo, Megan, thank you so much to both of you for taking the time to come on the show. Hugely, hugely excited to talk with both of you.
MEGAN HULLINGER: Thank you so much for having us. This is great.
AMY JO HUTCHISON: Yes, excited.
VALLAS: Well, we gotta start by talking a little bit about Rattle the Windows and how both of you come to this work. And at least one of you, possibly both of you, have called yourself an accidental activist. And so, you’ve got stories of kind of how you come to this work. But let’s start with the story behind Rattle the Windows. And you guys describe it as an organization “to make West Virginia a state built on an infrastructure of care that is focused on our values and our families.” And there’s also some other language describing the organization that says, “We shouldn’t be ashamed that we’re stuck in this cycle of poverty, but we also shouldn’t sit in our pain and wait for someone else to advocate for us.” So, Amy Jo, I’m gonna start with you. Talk a little bit about the story behind the campaign and how you came to get involved with organizing West Virginia families.
HUTCHISON: Sure. So, for the Rattle the Windows, I like to think of it, more of it as a movement than an organization. The Rattle the Windows came about, I gave a speech in Congress back in February 2020, right before COVID hit the United States, and the video somehow ended up going pretty viral. And one of the lines in my speech was, “Shame on you, shame on me, shame on each and every one of us for not rattling the windows of these halls.” And as I was going through the comments section on social media, “rattle the windows” became like its own sort of battle cry. And people were starting to pull that line out, and they were turning it into a hashtag. And it was just something that really resonated with people. And even the people that I knew personally would send me messages and reference that line in something like, “You know what? Maybe that’s exactly what this movement needs to be called, is Rattle the Windows.” So, that’s the history behind that.
As for how I began to organize, my lived experience is poverty. My most common experience is as the only parent of two now-teenagers. I’ve been the only parent for about 15 years, believe it or not. And we’ve lived in a low-income, high-need neighborhood, and my children attended a Title I elementary school. Long story short, I guess, like Megan, I was an accidental activist as well. Our school, the elementary school, had a swimming pool in it. It’s the only swimming pool in the state of West Virginia inside an elementary school. Our neighborhood, the only thing to really do in the summer is the city pool. So, we caught word that the county wanted to tear the pool out and put a community garden in instead. And it just it upset me because I knew kids were learning how to swim in that pool. Everyone from generations, the pool was like the neighborhood’s claim to fame.
And so, I sat one day, and I wrote emails on a Saturday—I’ve never done anything like it in my life—to every elected representative from the mayor of my city to Washington, D.C. And so, someone in D.C. knew the state superintendent of schools back then. And the conversation started, you know, “Let’s come and look around.” Long story short, I ended up going up against the former superintendent. She’s no longer with the district. It was very upset because Charleston was given all this attention in this building, and we ended up winning $4.6 million in renovation funds for the school from the West Virginia School Building Authority to get the repairs made to the school, the swimming pool, and other repairs that were desperately needed. I mean, at that point, it was the only elementary school that had window air conditioners. So, now they have central heat and air, which is beautiful, right? So, that was kind of how I got into this work.
I was a Head Start teacher for a number of years, an Early Head Start teacher. And at our pre-service training before a year started, a woman came and presented to us about this new organization in West Virginia who was really doing a lot of focusing on registering families to vote. And so, I listened to what she was saying about how we hold the power, people on the ground, and I was like, wow! This is kind of radical, you know. No one ever said these things to me before. And so, I ended up talking to her. She was an organizer for an organization, Our Children Our Future, which the name has changed over the years. It’s Our Future West Virginia now.
And so, I organized with that organization for like five years. I started out hanging out at meetings in the background, listening in to see what this was about. But it was the first time that someone had actually told me that my experience with poverty had a purpose and that it was important, and that the more that I shared and the more that I got people around me to share that had the same experience, that we could really make changes happen locally, on the state level, and on the federal level to make our quality of life a little better. And so, I guess that was exactly the line that I needed, was that it didn’t matter how badly I felt about my situation of poverty. It had a purpose and that I needed to use that and stand in the strength of it. And so, everything else, as they say, is history.
VALLAS: And we’re gonna talk lots more about some of that history and how it got to present day, given that all eyes have been on West Virginia for quite some time, for obvious reasons.
Megan, I’m gonna ask you the same question. Amy Jo describes you as a member of her crew, a member of the Rattle the Windows crew, and you have described yourself as an accidental activist. So, I guess now you both are describing yourselves that way. How did you get into this work? How did you move into becoming an activist, even though you didn’t necessarily set out to do so?
HULLINGER: Well, it was really kind of a roundabout way. So, I met Amy Jo a couple years ago. It was at the Central Appalachian Social Enterprise Summit. I had just become an AmeriCorps member, so I was with a local non-profit in this area where I’m at in Pocahontas County. And it’s kind of funny how things worked out. So, that was right before COVID. I was kind of in between, you know, changing my life and going a different direction. So, after hearing Amy Jo speak— And she was speaking about child care, and I do have some experience with that. I was an in-home child care provider for about four years. I absolutely loved it, but I took, primarily, it was about 99 percent of the kids I had were on subsidy. And I really, I saw how very important it was to parents, to children to have that, sort of…it’s like one less thing, right, when you have that support. And at that point, I was not a single mom. At that point, I was still, you know, I had a normal family unit. Long story short, things happened, as they do, and I found myself single with four children, [chuckles] small children. So, that was a really humbling experience.
And I did not come from poverty. I was born and raised in Florida. So, I lived in Titusville. My dad worked for NASA. I had a nice, solid, middle-class upbringing. So, I kind of felt like these things that I started to experience, it was new to me. I mean, I’d had an experience with it on the outside. You know what I’m saying? I had always been taught you need help others, and you care and everything. But finally, I find myself in this place myself. So, it got to where it was almost, I wouldn’t say an embarrassment, but I almost felt like I felt less than. I don’t really know how to put that correctly. But I felt like I was not living to my potential. But the reality is it was really through no fault of my own. I mean, it was, I had done all the right things. I went to school. I worked full time. We had our own home. I had a husband. You know, it’s life happens, right? So, really, for me, I realized that anybody can find themselves in that position at any given time. I mean, the average person is much closer to being an unhoused individual, to having nothing than they are to being a multimillionaire.
So, when I met Amy Jo, I think it was maybe six months later, when you had done your speech, and it was like it was so empowering, and I was so inspired. And I was just so happy to know you. So, when she reached out to me about sharing my story and what I was going through during COVID and being a single parent and being low-income and how the stimulus was really helping me and my kids to survive, it kind of took me aback a little bit. It’s like I felt like it was important to share, but at the same time it was kind of hard. It was humbling for me. And especially to put that story out there nationally, that was tough. But I felt like it was really important because I feel like a lot of people that maybe come from a middle-class or even upper-middle-class upbringing, people really need to understand that you are in that same situation. You are just as close as everyone else to being there, I mean, and any one of us. So, I mean, that was, for me, that was really important to kind of humble myself in it and get over that and start speaking out about it.
VALLAS: And I wanna get into that as well, given that a big part of what the Rattle the Windows movement has been working to do and what each of you has been working to do is to really dismantle some of those myths about poverty that have been so incredibly pervasive and sticky throughout American politics for many, many years, and which we are unfortunately seeing and hearing in the mouth of your esteemed senator from West Virginia on the regular in the context of this Build Back Better debate. So, getting into that portion of the conversation.
Before we get into the specifics of Build Back Better and the infrastructure of care that you both and that Rattle the Windows are fighting for, which we mentioned just briefly before, I’d love to give you both the opportunity to ground this conversation not just in your individual stories, but with a picture of what West Virginia families are facing, and in particular West Virginia families, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. And Amy Jo, I’m gonna go to you first with that. Rattle the Windows spends a lot of time working with and talking to low-income families, many of whom are headed by single parents like yourself.
HUTCHISON: Yeah, absolutely. And probably most of them are parents who make too much for assistance and don’t make enough to really get by, you know, like just survival mode. And that’s probably one of the most upsetting parts of all of this to me when it comes to this Build Back Better package is, I don’t understand how we can have elected officials who say that they don’t see things the way that we see things ourselves. There are so many people out here. I can’t tell you how many moms I know who have bachelor’s degrees and are working for $15 an hour.
HUTCHISON: And then you hear, back before Build Back Better, Manchin raised a lot of people’s ire because he made those comments that $11 an hour was reasonable, right, when they were talking about raising the minimum wage. And it just comes down to the fact that here we are living this existence where I’m the one that has to put the gas in my car every day. So, I know that I’m paying like $3.28 a gallon for gasoline. And if I’m making $10 or $11 an hour, that’s like three gallons of gasoline an hour, you know? And so, it might take me, especially if I live in a rural part of the state, it might take me a half an hour, 45 minutes to get to work or to get to the nearest child care. Megan has that experience, right? She spends hours in her car every day, just making sure that she can get child care for her kids so she can work. But there’s this huge breakdown between what life is really like out here and what people can sit in Washington D.C., dare I say, on a yacht and just surmise that life is like out here.
And to me, maybe it’s because I am a bleeding heart. I don’t know. But if someone would say to me, “Amy Jo, if you sign this piece of paper with a yay and you could cut child poverty in your state by 40 percent,” that would be a no brainer for me, you know? Because I understand that with poverty, that poverty is trauma, and we don’t talk about that a lot, I think. And we don’t talk about the toxic stress of poverty, which is the constant worrying about how you’re gonna keep food on the table and you’re gonna keep gas in your car and you’re gonna keep the shoes on your kids’ feet or you’re gonna be able to pay for the co-pays when someone gets sick and has to go to the doctor. To me, there is just so much in day-to-day life that we’re struggling with. And for some reason, that doesn’t get a lot of the attention that I think that it should because that’s the reality of West Virginia.
I think everyone knows most of our jobs are low-wage jobs. The majority of us aren’t out here living our best life. We’re doing the best we can with what we have. And just the child poverty rate alone, to me, like I said, this should be a no brainer. I don’t understand why we have to push so hard and just be, you know, every time we tell our stories, we make ourselves vulnerable. Like Megan said, you wanna talk vulnerable? Put yourself on the front page of the USA Today, you know? [chuckles] And I think the power dynamic in that it shouldn’t be us chasing elected officials around to tell our story. They should just come to us or our communities and say, “Hey, let’s talk about this.” Or instead of coming just for a photo op, for a parade or whatever special event with grasstops folks, come and hang out with us in our communities and just have a conversation over a cup of coffee about what things really do look like here.
Because I think if we start framing this from a more realistic perspective, I always go back to the price of gasoline because if you’re working for minimum wage in West Virginia, it’s higher than the federal. It’s $8.75 an hour here. But if you have, again, have that drive, and you’re paying $3.28 a gallon for gasoline, then why is anyone standing there scratching their head wondering why you can’t make it to work by the end of your pay period? Because you don’t have gas in your car. And I think that there’s just a real lack of those conversations on a bigger level.
VALLAS: And Megan, I wanna bring you in here as well because, as Amy Jo referenced and as you described, you said you’ve got four kids, and child care and scrambling for child care and driving all over the state for child care is what Amy Jo just said is a big part of your day-to-day existence. Unfortunately, if we don’t see this Build Back Better package sent from the House into the Senate become law signed by Joe Biden, we won’t see the kinds of transformational change to child care and other policies that are currently contained in that legislation actually become law. Talk a little bit about the child care experience on the ground in West Virginia, your own and possibly what you’re hearing from families as well.
HULLINGER: Sure. So, where I’m at is, it is a very rural area. And of course, we are in a child care desert, which means that basically, we do not have enough care providers for the amount of children that we have here. So, what I find interesting is the fact that 70 percent of children in America under six years old live with every available adult in the household working. So, I’m confused as to how this is not first and foremost in everybody’s minds, right? So, not only are we having parents that are spending more than they could possibly afford on child care, but at this point, you can’t even find it, I mean, if you could pay for it.
So, we have right now, especially in areas like this, it doesn’t make financial sense for child care to open as a business. And as a matter of fact, child care is not a very good business model, I mean, when you look at it from the free market perspective, right? So, it doesn’t make sense for people to open up a child care center and not be able to make a living, right? It does not make sense for teachers to go to school to have a lead teacher for the required two to four years to come out with student loans and make $10 an hour. I mean, it doesn’t make sense. So, people aren’t going to do it. And where does that leave us, right? Where does that leave kids? Where does that leave women? Where does that leave families?
And I feel like this is, it’s a very important conversation that, for some reason, America has avoided until now. And I would really hope that they’re not going to try to avoid it again. I mean, at this point, money would help, yes. But if we don’t do something about the infrastructure of child care, you know, you can give people subsidies all day long. But if they cannot use those subsidies, if there’s nowhere to take them to, it’s not gonna matter.
VALLAS: And you’re describing so aptly what we tried to pack into a very full episode just a few weeks ago of Off-Kilter, a deep dive into what our guests called the house-of-cards child care and early learning system in the U.S. So, I’ll refer listeners to that for a deeper dive on some of the dollars and cents. But Megan, you’re really, you’re hitting the nail on the head there, obviously, in ways that are not just resonant for West Virginia, but are really true nationally.
And Amy Jo, I wanna bring you back in to kind of continue to paint the picture of why Rattle the Windows and the crew that you’re fighting with on the ground in West Virginia to get Senator Manchin and others in Washington to hear what West Virginia families want and need from their leaders includes child care, but also the child tax credit expansion, which some folks call a child allowance, and paid leave and other issues. Talk a little bit about why this infrastructure of care—something that I assume you have titled intentionally because of the sort of artificial distinction that Senator Manchin and some others in Washington have drawn between roads and bridges infrastructure investments and, say, human infrastructure investments like Megan has already been describing—but would love to give you a chance to talk a little bit about why these policies are really the meat and potatoes of what Rattle the Windows is fighting for.
HUTCHISON: I think we are all familiar with the old bootstraps mentality, right? Where we’re supposed to just pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. And the fact of the matter is before COVID over in Hampshire County, just as an example, the same night I met Megan, I met a gentleman who said, we were having a community meeting. We were talking about how high our poverty rates were. We were talking about how high our unemployment rates were. And then someone is like, “We don’t have any child carers.” And so, I mean, I think if you wanna push the bootstrap mentality, then we have to have this infrastructure of care. We have to have all the parts in place that are gonna allow families to go out there and make these decisions about work.
I don’t know if you’re familiar, but it actually cost more right now in West Virginia for a private pay family to have a child in child care than it does to send that same child to WVU or Marshall University for a year. So, that’s the cost of private pay child care in West Virginia. That’s not the fault— I mean, child care obviously is a business. But that’s just the nature of the lay of the land here in West Virginia. And then we have child care deserts.
I know before COVID, Calhoun County didn’t even appear on the DHHR dropdown menu list to find a child care provider because there was no child care option in Calhoun County at all before COVID hit. And so, I think these are just pieces of the conversation that we just don’t have. We don’t talk about the lack of child care. We would just rather talk about how, “Well, we have this many single moms right now that are relying on the system because they’re too lazy, and they don’t wanna work.” Because it’s easier for us as a society to blame poverty and to treat poverty as a character defect than it is to realize that this system is working. It’s designed to work this way. It’s a very punitive system, and sometimes people just don’t have, they don’t have a choice. And so, if there is no one in your county that’s gonna be able to take care of your kids, how are we supposed to be able to expect you to go out? And what are you gonna do with your kids to go and get a job?
And so, I think today, I was talking to a group of impacted folks, and I said, “I think when it comes down to it, our ask is that we want the government’s efforts to be as strong as the activists’ efforts in trying to get this stuff fixed, right?” We know what we’re doing. We’re working 40 to 60 hours a week for low wages. We’re out here doing two and three jobs at a time. We need a government that’s gonna acknowledge that, acknowledge why those things are necessary, and is gonna put in the same amount of effort to fix these problems as we are.
VALLAS: And so, just picking up on some of the threads that you just dropped there, right? I mean, we can get back to Build Back Better, and we can get back to the kind of the road ahead there and some of the messages there that you all and other West Virginia families have for Mr. Manchin.
But you started to get into one of the things that I would really love to spend some time with both of you doing in this conversation. And that’s really kind of lifting up and then really tearing down some of the core myths about poverty that, as you put it when we were talking before we started taping that unfortunately, the senator from West Virginia has himself been out there kind of perpetuating and which seem to be underpinning his decision making when it comes to what he supports and what he does not support in the context of this economic recovery debate.
So, one of the key myths about poverty that really doesn’t seem to go away ever, and which has certainly been recurring in this moment, as I said earlier, in the mouth of Joe Manchin in the context of Build Back Better is that somehow, poor people just don’t wanna work or are lazy, right? And Amy Jo, you started to speak to this before, and you spoke passionately to this in that hearing you testified in back in 2020, which you mentioned before, when you said you have pulled yourself up by your bootstraps so many times you pulled them off, a line that caught many people’s attention at the time. But that myth, that idea that poor people just don’t wanna work or are somehow poor because they are lazy, really is, of course, at the core of the idea of so-called work requirements, right? The idea that assistance or public programs are conditioned on parents’ work status.
And this was a huge part of what Joe Manchin has brought up in the context of Build Back Better, actually saying that he didn’t wanna support continuing the child allowance, for example, if it didn’t have work requirements in it for the parents. And at the time, Senator Sherrod Brown responded, he himself a huge advocate for the child allowance and one of the champions of that policy in Congress for a long time, he said, “Well, I don’t know. I think raising children is work.”
VALLAS: And I feel like Senator Brown really kind of summed it up pretty well! But this is just one of many myths about poverty that stay with us, that have stuck with us for so long and which really are kind of through lines in the debate around whether to have an adequate human infrastructure and social insurance system for families.
So, I’d love to give both of you an opportunity to talk about the work that you’re doing busting that and other myths about poverty through Rattle the Windows, but also more broadly through each of your respective advocacy and activism. And I know that’s a big part of what each of you is seeking to do in this Build Back Better moment. So, Amy Jo, I’m gonna stay with you there for a moment, and Megan, bring you in, in just a minute.
HUTCHISON: Yeah. As far as the work requirements, when we heard that, when that came back out from underneath the rock a few weeks ago, that really spurred a bunch of the non-profits into action. It seems as if, again, people assume that people are poor because of something they’ve done wrong, right? And it’s, you know, we live in this very punitive system. So, work requirements, you’re just gonna get up off your lazy asses, and you’re all gonna get a job, right?
One of the most common comments that I’ve heard on social media on my video was, “Quit having kids you can’t afford.” Those are always the go-to lines. Like, there’s no reason in the world. I just went out and had babies by myself because that was just something, I was bored on a Friday night, and that’s just something I decided to do. There’s no exchange or consideration for the million-and-one reasons why women become single parents or dads become single parents, right? Just as one example.
And so, as far as this work requirements go, there’s such a myth that people just want, they’re gonna sit around. They don’t wanna to do anything. They want the government to pay them money. First of all, I don’t know anyone—and I know a lot of people who are impacted by poverty—I don’t know anyone who’s just sitting around collecting a check. And so, that made me go a little bit deeper. And I think, what exactly does that look like?
And whenever we talk about passing work requirements for things like the child tax credit expansion, people come off with those one-liners. They don’t consider the people who are waiting on a decision for disability, just as one example, people who may have been denied or people whose application are still in the process of being approved or denied, people who can’t work for that reason. We’re also, what about the grandparents right now in the state of West Virginia who are doing kinship care because of the opioid epidemic? Rebecca, you’re gonna make those grandparents go back out and get another job? Or you’re gonna, you know, you’re gonna make the grandparents go out and get a job again after retirement age, just because they’ve taken on this responsibility, and you think now they’re lazy and they don’t deserve this child tax credit expansion?
I mean, work requirements is always the first thing that they go for, whether that’s the work requirements on SNAP benefits. We even did a pilot program here in West Virginia for nine months where it just proved that it really didn’t make a big difference in the numbers, you know? But for some reason, there’s this huge stereotypical belief that you’re poor because you don’t work. It’s not you’re poor because your housing costs so much and because the price of gasoline is so high, and yet you’re out here busting your butt for $10 to $11 an hour because people call that good money, you know? And so, we’d rather blame our neighbor. And it’s easier for us to lay the blame on people who are living in poverty than it is for us to start demanding that these huge, multibillion-dollar corporations—
We’re not subsidizing poor people. We’re subsidizing these big corporations who don’t pay their employees living wages, don’t hire them full-time, right? You shouldn’t be able to go somewhere and get a job and then still qualify for food stamps on your way out the door after you’ve been hired. But that’s what happens. And yet, it’s not the corporation that we’re shoving that on. We would rather blame the poor people rather than say, “Hey, we’re subsidizing this corporation.” We’re gonna say, “Hey, we’re subsidizing Amy Joe, and we really need for her to do better for herself.” And work requirements just plays right into that trap.
Poverty is a perfect storm. We have this poverty threshold that I believe is, that’s why I went to testify, to, sorry, in Congress. I believe it’s completely out of touch, and it’s no longer even really relevant here. But we have this poverty line where people assume that once you cross it, it’s just magically all rainbows and butterflies. But those are the people who are absolutely struggling, are those people who don’t make enough to get by but make too much for assistance because of the way that is designed. And work requirements is just one more way of punishing poor folks and perpetuating those stereotypes. And I think it’s a cop out. I think if we would really sit and look at—I’m gonna have to go back to it again, right—the infrastructure for care in these counties and then compare that to the poverty rate and to the unemployment numbers, I think we would get a totally different picture than what we’re being painted by the media and by our politicians.
VALLAS: And just because it’s such an important point, I mean, so many important points that you’ve just made, but adding some numbers to the point you made about the poverty line, which we also actually had a recent episode about, the title being The Poverty Line Is Too Damn Low. But to put some numbers to that, right, I mean, you’ve got, on the one hand, our official poverty measure in the United States telling a family of four that they are only “officially poor” if they have $26,000 or less as their income. And that puts it at about 11 percent and change poverty rate currently. But compare that to about half of Americans reporting that they were struggling to afford food and housing and healthcare and child care and other economic basics even prior to the pandemic, right? And as you said, we’ve got an official poverty measure that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the actual cost of a basic standard of living in this country.
Megan, I’m gonna ask the same question to you. What are the biggest myths about poverty that you see out there or that you hear from Senator Manchin or other leaders who are out of touch with the reality of West Virginia families’ experiences? Obviously, single moms are perhaps one of the most demonized groups among low-income families. And each of you is in a position of advocating for single moms and working to change the narrative there, given how out of touch it has been with the reality of what families experience below the poverty line as well.
HULLINGER: Yeah. So, for me, it’s…. [sighs] And this seems to be kind of, I see this a lot. So, there’s this kind of thought process that if you are poor, that you have done something terribly wrong to get yourself there. You have made terrible decisions. You are not very intelligent. Whatever the problems may be, they rest solely with you. But what we’re not talking about is the fact that the reason why I believe, personally, that we’ve not really talked about child care as being an infrastructure, an actual need, is the fact that America has been built upon the back of unpaid laborers, right? So, I mean, our country was literally built on people working for free.
So, when we start valuing care work as work, what does that mean, right? Not only are we talking about single moms— Is there a reason why families that are headed by women, that they are predominantly impoverished over families headed by men? And I’m talking about single-parent families. Let me rephrase that. So, we understand why two-parent families, we have dual income. So, it makes sense why a single-parent family would have less. But women still make less than men, still, per dollar. And I believe honestly, the reason why is that we do not value women’s work as work. And when you start to talk about those things, and you start to talk about, for instance, some of the lowest paying jobs that we have, which are most of the jobs here that are available in West Virginia, are jobs that are headed by women and predominantly women of color.
So, when we talk about Build Back Better and child care and what it would mean to families, but also what it would mean to the folks that are providing that care, right, they deserve a living wage. And there seems to be some sort of disconnect between seeing what they do working with children as actual work. And I just…. [sighs] I would like to say that I don’t understand it, but I feel that I do. [chuckles] And I feel like Manchin and a lot of these men in power, they are refusing to acknowledge the fact that they have had women providing unpaid labor for them that has helped them get to the place they are now. So, we cannot continue to ignore the fact that women’s work is work. Care work is work. Working with the elderly is hard work. Working with children is relevant and real work. Working in social services is work. If I need a four-to-six-year degree to be able to do it, it’s work! I mean, I just don’t…. [sighs] I’m getting really sick of this whole narrative that there’s not any sort of intrinsic value in family caretaking. I mean, that’s, it’s just beyond ridiculous. We cannot keep ignoring the fact that we have families in America, and unfortunately, we have made it to where it’s no longer possible to support a family on one income.
So, what are we doing here? I mean, what is the…what is the solution? I mean, we cannot keep burying our head in the sand forever. Even the poverty level itself is ridiculous, right? So, if you look at the way that they determine who is impoverished, it’s based upon a model in the 1960s. It does not take into account our housing market, which is insane. It doesn’t take into account the sky-high price of child care. It does not take into account gas. I mean, if we were to take all of these things into account, we’re looking at an America that’s what, 28 percent poverty rate? I mean, that’s a lot. So, I feel like we’ve just been kind of ignoring and sweeping under the rug these problems that COVID is really bringing to a head. And I don’t feel like we can afford to ignore them any longer.
VALLAS: And it’s incredibly well said. And to your point about, would it be something like 28 percent? I mean, there are all kinds of different models out there that folks have put into practice to try to take the cost of living into account, and some tell us that it’s about half. That it’s about half of Americans who are actually functionally poor because they were unable to afford even a basic standard of living. Then this was before the pandemic, of course, which for many folks, made it even worse.
So, we’re gonna start running out of time—and I wish I had two hours instead of one hour with both of you because there’s so much that we could get into—but just a couple more questions that I’d love to try to get to if we have a little more time. And one of those is, you brought up before, Amy Jo, that poverty, it causes trauma. And I am one of the advocates out there, many others as well, refer to poverty as policy violence because it is, of course, a choice. Poverty is a choice in America. It’s a political choice, it’s a policy choice, and it is doing violence to our families, to our kids. The frame that is very often lifted up as the reason not to invest in something like child care or in an extension of this revolutionary child allowance that’s cutting child poverty in half, at least by the measure of our flawed official poverty measure, right? We know it’s not a great measure, but at least under that measure, cutting U.S. child poverty in half. The argument for not doing this is suite of sweeping, transformational economic policies that President Biden has been trying to push through Congress, and that most Democrats have been trying to push through Congress, for the better part of this year, really, since March is, of course—and this is one of the things that we’ve been hearing a lot lately from Senator Joe Manchin—is the cost of these policies.
So, there’s a lot of talk this week and last week, and I suspect we’re gonna hear even more heading into next week about cost estimates from something called the Congressional Budget Office, which is basically the place in the federal government that’s charged with adding up the costs of legislation before it actually moves to a vote. So, we’re hearing lots from Senator Manchin and others, a handful of so-called moderates in the House as well about sort of handwringing around costs: “Oh, we can’t afford this. Oh, we should be worried about deficits.”
And I just feel the need to, as a quick side note, say it’s incredibly frustrating to hear that set of quote-unquote “concerns” being raised in this moment as someone who is old enough to remember the debate around two trillion in tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations just a few years ago on President Trump’s watch. No talk of deficits back then. No concerns on the part of Republicans to singlehandedly ram through a package of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that added $2 trillion to the deficit. But in this moment, of course, investment in families, that somehow is a moment to be worried about deficits, at least if you are the senator from West Virginia.
I would like to ask you guys to comment on the opposite side of the coin. If Senator Manchin is so worried about the costs of this package—which, by the way, Democratic leadership are going out of their way to ensure is paid for with tax increases, the revenue side of the package so that it’s not something that is going to add to the deficits—but what is your message to Senator Manchin about the other side of the coin, which is the cost of doing nothing. If this package were not to happen, if Senator Manchin were to exercise his power, his outsize power, in the Senate and say, “You know what? I actually am not interested in letting this package move forward, or I wanna shrink it even further so that we’re not able to even do the bare minimum towards these transformational policies that President Biden has been trying to advance all year,” what is your message to him about the cost of doing nothing if that bill does get held up or shrunk even further? And Amy Joe, I’ll go to you first with that.
HUTCHISON: This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. You know, I’m 50 years old, Rebecca. So, I’m thinking this may be the one chance that we have to really be able to turn this around. I have two teenagers. So, what my question is to Senator Manchin would be, “What kind of legacy are you gonna leave my kids? What kind of legacy are you gonna leave your grandchildren?” Because the one thing that really makes me so angry is I keep coming back to that part of my speech where I pointed out that they have $40,000 a year for office furniture allotments, right? And the federal poverty guidelines for 2021 for a family of seven was $40,120 or something like that. So, I mean, to hear people talk about wasteful spending when it comes to investing in children and families who will not stand up and say, “You know what? I don’t need a $20,000 desk in my office.” To me, that’s just [laughs] that’s the most beautiful picture of hypocrisy that we could ever paint, you know? So, that’s my one issue is that you wanna talk about what it’s gonna cost whenever we invest in children and families, but yet you wanna continue to live your bourgie and excessive lifestyle on our dime.
I think the other thing is, if we don’t have good nutrition, we know kids aren’t learning well in school. West Virginia continues to come in last or almost last in all these categories, and the senator knows that. He may choose not to acknowledge that, and Capito as well. But whenever we lift the bottom, the top floats, you know. So, the more investments that we could give to the people who need it the most, to the ones who are truly the ones struggling through it day to day and just trying to do the best they can with what they have, everyone else is gonna benefit from that. If we have healthier children because their parents are able to afford healthier meals, then those kids are gonna go to school, and they’re gonna learn better. And so, the teachers are benefiting from that. The school system is benefiting from that. We’ll be able to go and have better jobs, and we’ll be able to help recreate some of this, so it doesn’t seem to be such a generational norm of living in poverty in West Virginia. That’s one of the stereotypes going around out there about West Virginians, is that we’ve always just been this poor state with kids running around with dirty faces and runny noses, right? Not wearing shoes. And so, I think that if we just really start investing in those people who need it the most and making sure that they have all of those support pieces.
I’m gonna say this, Rebecca, because this has been really on my heart. This Build Back Better is probably, I’m taking this campaign personally, and I don’t usually take the campaigns personally. But my family had a miracle of all miracles, and we have property. Our house was bought by a real estate developer. And so, what that did was that allowed us the opportunity to move into a different neighborhood and able to buy a house that we could better afford to run. So, I went from a house where we didn’t have gas turned on—we were heated with electric heat, which, you know the price of the electric bill—to a house now where I can have gas and electric because my gas bill is $37 a month. So, it was just like we were able to move into more adequate housing, and it really gave us a better lease on everything. And it was enough money to where I was able to get my head above water, right? So, my family escaped poverty because of a miracle. That was nothing short of a miracle. It doesn’t happen to everybody.
And so, I’ve traveled around since I wanna say July, collecting stories from folks: “How’s this child tax credit helping you out?” We had an immediate decrease in hunger. What are they saying, like 24 percent across the board immediately after that first child tax credit payment hit in July. So, I mean, but it’s something that we know we can track right back to the effects, the positive effects, it’s having on kids and families. And then what I’ve watched happen is that I’ve watched these women, and I know they’ve moved their kids to better neighborhoods, and they’re living in better housing now. Or I know a woman. Her oldest child is 19 years old, just moved out of the projects for the first time in their life because they were able to do that because of these child tax credit payments. I know parents who’ve been able to put braces on their kids’ teeth because they could finally afford it. I can’t tell you how many parents I know who’ve gone out and bought a more reliable vehicle because they can afford it. People who’ve paid their fines to get their driver’s license back. People who’ve paid to have new tires to get past the vehicle inspection. That usually costs us so much money. It’s not unheard of, and it’s very common for me personally, to drop $1,000 a year to get my car to pass inspection, for that $14 sticker.
HUTCHISON: And so, I’m really watching. I’m watching all of these things take place in these families’ lives, and just the whole joy in the celebration. And they can finally breathe a little bit, you know. It’s like just that one little payment a month is able to just provide them with more freedom than what they’re accustomed to. And they’re not taking it for granted. And they understand that it could be temporary if we don’t keep speaking up, and if we don’t keep just trying to get that message out there about the good that it’s doing.
And I think what really upsets me about this whole, the need for this conversation, is the fact that we have to keep proving that we deserve the right to be able to breathe a little bit. And if we have people out here who are making these huge life changes, these huge positive life strides, then why are we not willing to talk about that? Why do we wanna bring out the bull crew? [chuckles] I’m trying to remember the rule on cussing because if that came out there! [chuckling] But why are we…. Why are we constantly having to protect and rally against these ridiculous [bleep] accusations of work requirements? Or how we’re just sitting around waiting? There are people out here who are making such huge positive strides, such huge positive changes. And whenever you’re doing better financially, you’re probably doing a little better mentally. Your stress level goes down a little bit. I know women who are going to the doctor for the first time in years because they can finally afford the co-pays. So, how is that not gonna be seen as a benefit that’s going to have a huge return on investment?
And I guess my whole thing about this is like, we shouldn’t have to wait for a freaking miracle to be able to breathe. But that’s exactly what this moment feels like to me. It’s like we’re in some, just this huge moment where people are celebrating. And I can’t tell you how many moms have told me, “I was able to buy my kids more than one pair of shoes this year for school.” It’s the little things. And I had a mom say, “My daughter was able to attend her first dance because we were finally able to go and buy her something to wear.” That might not mean a lot to people, but whenever just your day-to-day life is just a struggle to put food on the table and to get by, and then you have this one moment of just like freedom that opens up these new opportunities, that’s life changing, and it’s life giving.
And it makes me so angry that here we are still having this debate at the eleventh hour, trying to convince these people who sit in an office with $40,000 worth of furniture that our kids and families are worth this little bit of an investment. I mean, there’s no argument about what they’re gonna get back from this. We’re gonna do better. Our kids are gonna learn more. Our parents are gonna be safer. They’re gonna be living healthier lives. That’s gonna be huge benefits for years to come. And it’s gonna be one of the ways that we can actually start to turn around the cycle of poverty in the state of West Virginia and give kids the chance that they deserve. And so, that’s my little sermon. This might be the miracle that we’ve all been looking for, and I think it’s a damn shame that in one of the poorest states in the nation, we’re the ones that are getting all the, [chuckles] all the highlight reels as to why this might not happen. And I just think it’s inexcusable, to be honest with you.
VALLAS: Well, and that’s why we wanted to make this week’s episode something of an open letter to Mr. Manchin, because it’s time he heard from some of the families that apparently are not being listened to. Amy Jo, when you testified before Congress in 2020, you said, “Quit talking about poor people, and start talking to us. It’s a bunch of people making laws and regulations about a situation that they don’t understand.”
And Megan, you and Amy Jo are gonna sort of get the last word here. The same question to you: What is your message to Senator Manchin when it comes to what the cost of doing nothing would be if he does decide to hold up this Build Back Better package?
HULLINGER: So, I just find it interesting that there’s never a debate, right, about giving more money to the people that already have it. And it’s obvious by now that trickle down does not work. None of it is trickling down. But it is proven that when you give money, or not even give money. I mean, people work for that, right? That’s another thing too. A lot of people like to talk about impoverished people, and they don’t pay taxes. They don’t work. That’s nonsense. Most people that are on SNAP benefits are working fulltime. And it’s not— [sighs] Just debating giving middle-class and lower-income families an extra $1,000 a year, debating that and fighting that so hard, while a $500 billion tax cut with 80 percent of that going to the top 1 percent of households, that’s a no brainer, right?
So, it just, to me, it comes down, it basically comes down to greed. I feel like a lot of our elected leaders have sold us out for their own interests, and I’m personally sick of it. I feel like we’re being gaslit. We don’t talk about the lobbying that goes on and the fact that a lot of these politicians are bought, and basically, they’re serving their own interests. They’re not serving their constituents. The top 1 percent is not their constituents. And I really feel like ignoring this problem is not going to make America….
I would hate to see people put their own interests in front of those of the American people. And I feel like that’s been going on for a really long time. And eventually, it’s going to come to a head to where people, if you cannot afford the goods and services to buy, right, eventually they’re gonna come crumbling down as well. If we can’t afford to buy what you’re selling anymore, if people get so put upon and so hard-pressed that they can’t afford to buy homes, that they can’t afford to feed themselves, clothe themselves, their children, I mean, it’s gonna come to a point to where there’s nothing left for anyone. Not the super-rich and certainly not the people on the bottom.
So, like Amy Jo was saying, lifting the 20 percent, it lifts us all, you know? But obviously, trickle down [chuckles] is not working. So, we really need to start thinking about who’s in the majority in this country and really putting their needs first and foremost. And also, valuing the people that are truly keeping this, our essential workers, and remembering who’s really keeping it running, you know?
VALLAS: And Amy Jo, you’re gonna get the last word in the last minute that we have. What is next for Rattle the Windows? What’s next for your organizing and advocacy? And what should we be watching in the days and weeks to come from the advocacy that you and other West Virginia families are bringing to the plate to be heard by your senator?
HUTCHISON: I think it’s just, I think my focus will always be on economic justice and to just kind of highlight the inequities and just to try to turn around and increase public awareness of what it really looks like out here. Let’s start blaming the system and stop blaming poverty. Like you said, poverty wasn’t put here by God. Poverty is manmade, and there are solutions to these. And I also hope to include more folks—I’m gonna say middle-class allies for lack of a better word—people who can come in, and they want to understand. Let’s study this stuff together. Let’s start leading workshops on why are we this poor in the first place, and what do we need to do to turn this around? And I hope that it would be like a community, almost like a community venture where we can cross racial and socioeconomic lines and start learning this stuff together so we can start changing it, so.
VALLAS: And you can find more about Rattle the Windows at RattleTheWindows.com. And are there any social media handles or other places that you wanna put out there for folks to find you and to connect if they wanna get involved?
HUTCHISON: Sure. It’s RattleTheWindows on Facebook. I believe it’s RattleWindows on Twitter and Rattle_the_windows on Instagram.
VALLAS: Amy Jo, Megan, thank you so much for taking the time to come on and to talk with us, to share your messages for Senator Manchin, and for all of the advocacy and organizing you guys are doing to hopefully encourage him, shall we say, to listen to West Virginia families in this critical moment. I really just appreciate everything that both of you are doing both for the short term and for the long term to build West Virginia into a state built on an infrastructure of care, as you put it, that’s focused on your values and on your families.
Amy Jo Hutchison is a West Virginia-born-and-raised grassroots organizer for economic justice. She’s also the founder of Rattle the Windows. And Megan Hullinger is a West Virginia mother, former AmeriCorps member, and community outreach specialist who became an accidental activist with Rattle the Windows. You can find links to learn more about and get involved with Rattle the Windows in this week’s show notes. And huge thanks to you both, again, for taking the time, and to Off-Kilter’s fabulous executive producer and resident West Virginian Troy Miller for introducing us for this week’s show. Let’s hope this is the week when Senator Joe Manchin starts subscribing to Off-Kilter, shall we? [theme music returns]
And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.