By Aaron D. Martin
Poverty is as much a part of the American tapestry as Apple pie and fireworks. It is a problem that has gone without a solution for 50 years. In 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “The War on Poverty,” around 19 percent of the 192 million Americans lived in poverty. In 2012, 15 percent of the 315 million Americans lived in poverty.
On June 4, The United Way of Central Ohio (UWCO) and Columbus Metropolitan Club (CMC) teamed up, along with support from National Church Residences and Made From Scratch, for a Poverty Simulation, which set out to show participants what it meant to be poor.
Thirty participants were immersed in this experiential event to learn what it feels like to not know where the next meal is coming from, and how difficult it is to move ahead when they are so far behind. Upon arrival, participants were given identities of someone who was poor. Those identities ranged from an 85-year-old homeless male to 8-year-old child with developmental issues.
Most participants were randomly grouped into family units, and some were single. Everyone was given a real-life scenario of people in Missouri’s welfare system. Missouri is the state where this poverty experiment was developed. The scenarios included the wages of the participant, the bills, the living situation, and any other responsibilities that had to be fulfilled.
Some participants had houses, and were responsible for paying the mortgage; some participants had apartments, or were homeless. There was an employer where some participants worked full time, some worked part time, and some applied to for employment. There was a bank, a mortgage company, a grocery/clothing store, a pawn shop, a cash advance shop, a utility payment center, a school, a day care, a police station/jail, and a hospital.
Services were also available to participants, including a social services office, a homeless shelter, and a faith-based ministry. Since transportation is a huge burden for people in poverty, participants had to spend a $1 travel voucher for anywhere they wanted to go before they could get services from any store or agency – even if they had a car. The challenge was to spend a month as a person in poverty. The four weeks were split into 15-minute increments, with five minutes for the weekend. Participants who were employed full time had to spend nine of the 15 minutes at their job; part-time workers had to spend four minutes there.
With the remaining time, participants had to shop for food and clothes, bank, and secure any assistance needed to make ends meet. Participants who had school-age identities had to attend school, or else get taken to jail for truancy. Families were given household items that they could pawn if necessary. Also, as added challenges, there was a thief who would take anything left unattended, which the participant had to try to get back. At random points during the experience Good Luck/Bad Luck cards were given out, and the recipient was bound to whatever the card said.
My given identity was of a 20-year-old, Caucasian female with a 1-year-old baby girl. I had a 40-year-old father and a 9-year-old brother. Our mother had left the family, and was paying no child support. My father worked full time, and we had a car and a house. I went to college, and could work part time if I secured day care.
At the start of Week 1, my child was stolen by the thief during a lapse in my personal judgment, so I had to spend time finding where she was and getting her back instead of looking for work or going to school. Once I found her, I dropped her off at day care – for $85 per week – and bought food for two weeks on our EBT card. However, before I got home with the groceries, I got a Bad Luck card telling me my child had a fever and had to be picked up.
By the time I got home, the mortgage company had sent a collector to our door, and since Dad was out trying to secure assistance at the time, I had to tell the collector we did not have the mortgage and was given a late notice. Thus ended Week 1.
Week 2 began with Dad (literally) spilling coffee and being late for work, which got him fired. My brother was caught with a weapon at school, and was sent to jail. I secured a day care voucher and took my child back to the day care, then applied for a job and tried to apply for social services. But because of the length of the line ahead of me, the office closed for the week before I was served. Week 2 ended with our mortgage still being unpaid.
Week 3 I was interviewed and hired, but could not start until next week. My brother was on vacation from school for the week, so he baby-sat his niece. Dad tried to get his job back, and pawned a few items, since we were now two weeks late on the mortgage. He was able to get some food and clothing vouchers, but the week ended before we could use them or pay the mortgage.
Week 4, I took my child to day care and went to work. My brother went back to school. Dad continued to try to find work or pawn items to make the mortgage – including the car. After work, I cashed my paycheck, bought food and clothes, picked up my child, and then met my brother at home to find out we had been evicted. Dad arrived home, still a few hundred dollars short, just in time for the last week to end.
After the experience was over, the moderator engaged us in a discussion. Most of the participants, who worked for social service agencies in real life, said they could not believe how hard it was to live in poverty. They talked about how it was nearly impossible to juggle all of the responsibilities, even if they had a spouse. Though not married to his partner for the experiment, one participant said having someone to trade off responsibilities was the only way he could have gotten through a month of poverty.
A female participant who was a homeless man refused repeated offers of help from a couple out of distrust for them. One participant, who was the only one working in her household, commented how she thought she would be in charge of the household, but realized that she had no idea what her children were doing during the day.
Another participant commented that his children would bring him money to help ends meet, but he had no idea where they were getting it from. Even worse than that, he did not really have time to care! His focus was on keeping the utilities and mortgage paid, and just hoped his children were not getting involved with the thief who roamed the room. His 17-year-old son, who was being played by a 79-year-old man, assured him that he did nothing illegal, but he did get a job from the mortgage company and got a family evicted.
One participant said that just as he was getting the hang of how to manage the weeks by Week 4, if this were his real life, it scared him that he would have to do it all again next month – and so on.
The comment that was most startling was the first one; the people in assistance industry did not understand the challenges of someone needing assistance. Maintaining the responsibilities of life can be difficult for some not in poverty. To add the rigors of poverty to life is like adding a 50-pound vest to daily wardrobe.
One lady who was an assistance provider said she felt bad that she could not do more to help, and I do not doubt that some real-life providers feel the same way. But people in poverty deal with multiple providers, and one mix-up or delay with one can easily set off a chain reaction that spiral downward quickly for the person in need.
UWCO and CMC opened some eyes to the surrounding issues of poverty, given the discussion. Participants left with a better understanding of the challenges people in poverty face in dealing with multiple agencies. So while rules and regulations are in place for a reason, there is a human element that makes life harder when it gets ignored.
10TV produced a short video about the experience. To view it, go to http://www.dispatch.com/content/pages/video.html?ooid=IzMjc2bjrQbmyN8QWFKkUn-HGixnAuxw&cmpid=share