How Can Congress Empower Women? These Reps Share Their Ideas

(From left: OL Editor-in-Chief John Hart, Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. at the Empowered Women’s breakfast. / Photo: Rep. Walorski Twitter) 

This morning Opportunity Lives‘ Editor-in-Chief John Hart moderated a discussion with Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute on expanding opportunity to women and the poor in today’s economy. The event, sponsored by Opportunity Lives, is the first of a series hosted by Empowered Women that will seek policy solutions to the issues facing women in America. 

Both Black and Walorski shared their own personal experiences with poverty. Black, who grew up in public housing in Glen Burnie, Maryland, was the first in her family to attend college. Black’s family did not have the money to afford sending her to college, but with the help of her guidance counselor and hard work, she earned a scholarship to attend community college and become a registered nurse. 

“I came from a place where people don’t know how to dream,” Black said. “Now I’m working to ensure other young women can learn to dream.”

Walorski grew up in northern Indiana where her father was a fireman and her mother worked in a meat cutting plant. In 2000 she moved with her husband to Romania where they did charity work with the nation’s impoverished children. But the difference between poverty in Eastern Europe and the United States, Walorski said, was the entrepreneurial spirit and indomitable will ingrained in the American psyche.

“We are a nation of solution finders, of opportunity seekers,” said Walorski.

When asked how those offering solutions can make the empowerment conversation front and center amidst a chaotic election cycle, Black said it starts with pushing the idea of creating an “opportunity economy”. Given that jobs and the economy consistently rank as the most important concern for voters, it’s important that Republicans put forward their plan to ensure a prosperous economic environment.

“Every issue is a women’s issue,” added Walorski.

“I came from a place where people don’t know how to dream … Now I’m working to ensure other young women can learn to dream.”

But how do we create this opportunity economy for American women? Mathur pointed to the redundancy of the 92 federal anti-poverty programs, and how many of those programs strip all benefits from recipients once they make over $40,000. Such a financial loss is a serious disincentive for those seeking to climb their way out of the welfare programs, Mathur said, and new anti-poverty laws should ease the transition from welfare to work.

Walorski, who chairs the Nutrition Subcommittee that oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), agreed, saying that policy makers should “give those who want a way out [from federal assistance] a way out.” She shared the story of one of her constituents, a high school student whose single-parent family was on food stamps. In order to help make ends meet, the student decided to get a job to help her mother pay for her family’s expenses. But the student’s income from her part-time job counted against their SNAP benefits, and was forced to give up the job so that her family could still receive assistance from SNAP.

In order to break this cycle of poverty and help people get off of federal assistance, Walorski said that policymakers must “give them a rung to climb the ladder and incentivize cultural change.”

Occupational licensing, Black noted, was another area where regulations are preventing the poor from finding opportunity. Black, who mentioned her love of baking, recalled how she would sell cakes to families at her children’s school when she was a single mother in order to help pay her bills. 

“But today I’d probably be arrested,” she said, “because I’d need a license to sell cakes, and you know I wasn’t going to stop selling cakes!”

Black pointed to the work of local leaders like Bob Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, whose individualized approach to combatting systemic poverty at the personal level is highlighted in Opportunity Lives’ “Comeback” miniseries.

In terms of communicating their solutions to poverty to the American people, Black stressed that Republicans can’t talk about poverty as a money issue.

“This is a people issue,” she said. “We need to talk about opportunity, not balance sheets.”

Gillum Ferguson is the Deputy Editor at Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @GillumFerguson.