Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Learning What It Is To Be Poor

I went to a Poverty Simulation yesterday. Jerry, one of the amazing organizers at Communities Creating Opportunity (CCO) asked if I wanted to go, and I jumped at it. Though I wondered how it would be. I've been to exercises like this that are designed to help one understand the plight of others, but they are often heavy-handed and didactic.

This one was not. It was tremendously well-done. An organization called MACA (Missouri Association for Community Action) has put together a whole experience. If you want to read about it, their website is Click on "poverty simulation."

We were each given an identity when we arrived. We went to our family groups, where we had a whole packet of stuff. There were sheets of information about our family: what our income sources were, what our bills were (when things had to be paid, etc.), etc. You got "transportation passes" and an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card if you had benefits like food stamps or other aid. You got some possessions which you could pawn, if you had to.

Our family was not on the lowest end of the income scale in this country. We had two cars for four people, and monthly income of about $1700, including disability and food stamps.

The exercise is conducted in fifteen minute sections, each representing a week. You have to figure out how to get to where you need to go, do all of your shopping, pay your bills, go to work in that fifteen minutes. And you need a transportation pass to go anywhere. If you work (I was the father in the family and I worked), you needed five transportation passes for each week of work. We started the week with six. I went off to work with my five, but then I couldn't go to the bank to cash my check. I had to go to the check-cashing store and pay extra to buy more transportation passes. And I only got one bill paid, because I ran out of time. Up went my blood pressure, and I wondered what it must be to have to decide how to get places, which bill to pay this week, whether you should pay the bank or the check cashing stand to cash your paycheck, since you don't have a bank account.

Of course, it took three weeks to save enough to pay our mortgage. We did finish the month with some money, but we encountered no contingencies. Some families arrived at the bank to find that they had outstanding loans. Some were given green cards which informed them that they had had an accident, or the car broke down, or some other contingency that wreaked havoc upon their income.

Oh, and there were thieves afoot. I dropped twenty-one transportation passes on my chair and went off to do something else, and they disappeared. We got to buy them back from the gentleman who stole them.

I was amazed at how much stress I felt from the beginning of the exercise. We tried to prepare beforehand, but we found ourselves running around some of the time trying to take care of things. And we surely cheated, borrowing transportation passes from one another in the middle of the room. If I were really stuck at work with no transportation, I'm not sure my mother-in-law would materialize out of thin air to get me to Point B.

I am a pretty aware person, I think. I think about, and pray about, poverty in this country. But it was eye-opening to walk in the shoes of someone who is struggling to get by day to day. I've certainly lived hand to mouth before, but never with a family, and I've been blessed with good health and a good education. I've been privileged, in other words. I'm privileged now.

So, of course, the question is "how can I use my own privilege to improve the lives of others?" Working on it. All suggestions honored and appreciated.


Anonymous said...

With kids going back to school and my pay check not coming in until next friday, I took out a Payday Loan for two weeks. Payday Loans great becuase I didn't have to use my credit card and bought everything I need to get my kids back to school. said...

Nice blogpost.