Tianna Gaines-Turner, 37, from Philadelphia, has been off cash assistance since 2009. She is currently working part time as an after school coordinator, though that job ends in May – she’s already looking for new work. “Poverty equals struggle,” says Tianna, who was raised by a single mother. “I’ve experienced poverty since—you know, I’ve been a little girl.”
Tianna and her daughter Marianna, 8, walk home from the store together one afternoon in April. Tianna and her husband Marcus Sr., are currently receiving $390 in food stamps each month. “People like to call me lazy, or people on food stamps and on cash assistance are lazy,” says Tianna. “It’s the opposite,” she adds; no one actually “wants to sit back on welfare for the rest of their lives.”
Tianna pulls out food for dinner as Marques, 8, looks on. The family’s income often fluctuates, and during downturns – like last fall when Marcus Sr. was unemployed – Tianna says she turns to food pantries and is used to “making my food stretch as far as I can.”
Tianna and Marcus Sr., with a pile of bills and medical records. They keep meticulous records of their expenses, they say, in part to be prepared for any of the many questions they may be asked when applying for public assistance. “Some people,” says Tianna, “like to look down at you. And shame you. Don’t look down at me, don’t shame me. Try to understand me.”
Tianna is involved with Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy organization working to raise awareness and impact policy on poverty. “I feel like it’s such a powerful thing…being an advocate,” says Tianna. “I get to tell my story better than any politician or anybody can.”
Marcus Sr. gives Marianna the medication she takes daily for epilepsy. Her twin brother Marques takes the same medication, which the Turners are able to pay for through government assistance.
Marcus Jr. 11, left, Marques, 8, right, and twin sister Marianna, 8, back center, run down the block toward the park. “I know education is key and that’s why I always push my kids,” says Tianna. When her son recently got a bad grade she says she told him: “You know, son, when you were born it was the best day of my life. But to other people it was just another black boy born in poverty.”
Tianna hugs her son Marques. “I know what it’s like to have went to bed without eating to make sure my kids eat. I know what it’s like to have to call around and almost beg people for help,” says Tianna, who has also been homeless twice. “I want better for them,” she says of her children.
Marianna looks out the window as she waits for Tianna to come home from work.
The family prays together at home before the children’s bedtime. Tianna hopes to move her family to a new neighborhood in the future, and get her kids into a new school. “I want my kids to have books to bring home, not Xerox copies,” she says.
Tianna helps Marcus Jr. and Marianna get ready for bed. When Marcus Jr. asks Tianna why she’s so involved in advocacy work, Tianna says she tells him, “I’m laying the groundwork for you. I’m speaking out for you…and for my grandkids so that you don’t have to fight as hard.”
Marianna brushes her teeth before bed. “I am optimistic,” says Tianna. “I want to be one of those success stories.”
Tianna gets Marques ready for school. “I see one day…Me going to college and graduating. And I think that that’s important to show my kids. Because a lot of times kids say, ‘Well, you didn’t do it, so why do I?’”
Marques, right, Marcus Jr., left, and Marianna, center, leave the house for school. “I want them to be able to thrive,” says Tianna of her children. “I want them to be lawyers, doctors, engineer—the vice president, the president, the CEO of their own company.”
Marcus Jr. laughs with his father, Marcus Sr. on their way to school one morning. Being an advocate is a priority for Tianna, she says. “I feel like sometimes people don’t want to tell their story because of the shame that comes with it,” she said. “I’m not just telling my story, I’m telling 40 million people’s story.”
Photos and Text: SARAH WEISER / RETRO REPORT