Editor’s note: This is this first in a series of blog and multimedia postings entitled Lived Experience. The project highlights how Coloradans benefit from policy and advocacy efforts led by CCLP and its partners.

For anyone, a 30th birthday marks a major milestone in adult life. For Hannah, who was pregnant and working regular shifts at a grocery chain at the time, her 30th birthday was more than a milestone; it was accompanied by the unexpected development that her water broke almost two months early.

After three days in the hospital, Hannah (who asked to remain anonymous for this vignette) underwent an emergency C-section and her only son was born. She spent the next month and a half at the hospital with her newborn son in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.

Despite the unexpected and distressing reason behind Hannah and her son’s incredibly long stay in the NICU, she speaks of her experience there as being quite positive. “It got me wanting to be a nurse in the NICU with the other babies,” she says. “After I graduate and get my GED, that’s exactly what I want to do.”

Hannah is a full-time mother of three, advocate and student who is currently working towards earning a high school equivalency diploma through classes with the Center for Work Education and Employment (CWEE) in Denver. “They have really good programs,” Hannah says, “what they taught us and what they showed us was really helpful in life.”

But even with CWEE’s help, trying to earn her high school equivalency diploma has not been easy for Hannah — especially amid a global pandemic and without a stable home or source of income. After her stay in the NICU, Hannah only current source of income comes from being enrolled in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), through which Hannah receives a mere $400 a month to support herself and her family.

“Trying to balance $400 when I not only have to buy him [Hannah’s son] new clothing, shoes, socks, more diapers, wipes… For me, being home after this pandemic, It’s not easy to manage everything on $400, plus I pay for my phone through TANF money, and money for the bus fare. It’s not an easy task, especially when I’m a single parent doing it by myself… It’s very frustrating.”

Armed with her lived experiences, Hannah has spent many hours advocating for statewide increases in TANF and other forms of Basic Cash Assistance. “I’ve been to the [Colorado state] Capitol twice,” Hannah says, “it was awesome… [but] it was terrifying.”

Speaking truth to power
During her time at the Capitol, Hannah spoke to state legislators about why they should support one of CCLP’s major legislative initiatives of 2020, Senate Bill 29. As it originally written, the legislation would have raised Basic Cash Assistance in Colorado by 10 percent and increased every year thereafter with an annual cost of living adjustment.

“[I testified] to them about how it is for us on TANF,” Hannah says. “We work our butts off for the little that we get. If they actually saw how hard we work every day — I can’t speak for everyone but I can speak for myself and I’m a hard worker…It’s very hard to have someone understand, [to] put them in our place to understand where we are at in life.”

Hannah explains how raising Basic Cash Assistance  “would be good for not only myself and people who are on TANF, but also people who are going to be on TANF in the future and help them as much as possible so that they can get themselves on their own feet and off the ground…It’s not [a raise] like $5, $6, $10–it’s a lot more than that. Everything adds up, from clothing to hygiene to food.”

What it means to testify
“A majority of people find testimony in such a formal setting to be daunting, and elected officials can sometimes come across as judgmental.” Chaer Robert, CCLP’s Legislative Director says. “When the subject of one’s testimony is one’s personal experience, it can have great impact with its authenticity and personal connection, but it does take strength and resolve. That is why CCLP values both our partner organizations who can help prepare people for the experience, and the individuals willing to speak from their experience to help others after them.”

Partially due to significant budget challenges that accompanied COVID-19 (including a 3.3 billion budget shortfall), the original SB 29 bill proved incredibly difficult to pass. Thanks to CCLP’s efforts and with the help of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, however, the bill was revised to provide an immediate, one-time $500 payment to families enrolled in Basic Cash Assistance to help meet their basic needs in the current time of crisis. Although the passage of the bill was a hard-fought victory for CCLP, it still fell short of the originally intended 10 percent increase paired with a yearly cost-of-living adjustment.

Hannah stands firm in her belief that legislators should have kept the original 10 percent increase bill. Even with the temporary, single month increase, the current amount that many recipients receive in Basic Cash Assistance is wholly inadequate for covering basic needs like food, hygiene and rent.

Continued advocacy is needed in order to ensure that all Coloradans like Hannah have access to equitable income sources to support themselves, support their families, and to pursue greater financial independence—which is one of Hannah’s primary goals for the future.

“We basically try to climb the ladder from being on TANF to being on our own and off of government help,” she said. “I want to be off TANF and have a good career and make my [own] money… [I want] to know that I’ll be okay.”

Hannah was connected to CCLP with the help of Stephanie Pacheco-Davidson through the Center for Work Education and Employment (CWEE) in Denver, a nonprofit organization that supports vulnerable workers through career and skills training, supportive services, and community investment. CWEE offers programs to participants in digital literacy, employment preparation, placement and retention services, and more. Learn more at https://cwee.org/

– By Andra Metcalfe