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2015 Policy Summit: An Hour of Poverty

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Attendees of the 2015 Policy Summit immerse themselves in a simulation that renders them poor and in need of more time and resources than most can find.

For a little more than an hour on this particular Thursday, Patricia Garry wasn’t herself, and that was the point.

One of about 20 participants in a poverty simulation at the 2015 Policy Summit, Garry slips into the shoes of a 34-year-old woman named Felicia Fuentes whose husband recently left her and her two teenage children with a mere $10 to their name.

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The family of 3, Garry and her co-participants would learn early in the exercise, lives in a low-income neighborhood, and they’ve got ground to make up if they’re going to pay the $820 in monthly bills they owe.

Before she set all of the simulated families loose to navigate their new realities, moderator Rochelle Jackson set some ground rules.

“This is a simulation, not a game,” said Jackson, a public policy advocate with Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh nonprofit organization that conducts such simulations several times a year. “Poverty is not a game. Roughly 1 in 7 people and 1 in 5 children [in the United States] are living in poverty.”

Try to think as a person facing poverty might think, she told the participants. If your given persona is 3 years old, you should not be advising your “parents” on what course of action they should take.

At the beginning of each “week,” Jackson explained, she would blow a whistle. Those participating would live the next 4 weeks in poverty.

Week 1: ‘We have nothing’

“Felicia”—again, played by Garry, executive director of the Community Development Corporations Association of Greater Cincinnati—approaches a social services reception desk.

“Hi,” she greets the person. “So we have nothing.”

That includes the appointment the receptionist asks for; “Felicia” doesn’t have one. She is sent to fill out paperwork on behalf of her family, which also includes her daughter “Francesca,” who’s 14, and her son “Franco,” who’s 17.

The form asks if anyone in the household has earned income. “Felicia” marks “no” with a big black X. She’s eventually sent to a case worker, for whom she must wait. In the meantime, “Francesca,” who’s actually Sheila Walker from Proctorville, Ohio, reports that she’s been told by a truancy officer that she needs to report to school.

Just as “Francesca” is defending her absences (she can’t help the family’s financial situation from school), a case worker interrupts. “I don’t have all day.”

Then blares another interruption: The whistle blows.

Week 2: Starving

When week 2 of the poverty simulation begins, “Felicia” is seen by the case worker.

“What is your income?” the worker asks.

“I have no income,” “Felicia” replies. “My husband just left.”

There’s good news and bad news. The family is eligible and will receive financial assistance for housing and food, but some of the assistance will take a month to process, and there’s no help here for utilities.

“That is all I’ve got,” the case worker states plainly.

“That is not going to get us where we need to go,” “Felicia” replies. There’s an awkward silence before the case worker ends the exchange.

The next whistle blows, and Garry realizes that her “family” has yet to eat during the simulation. “We have already starved to death,” Garry notes.

Week 3: A warning shot

Each time the whistle blows, the families are expected to return to their “homes,” which are groups of chairs.

“Francesca” is the first to notice the sign, affixed to the Fuentes’ “home” with blue tape, warning them that their mortgage and realty account is in arrears. “Your prompt attention to this matter is appreciated,” the sign says.

“Felicia” finds herself forced to address the truancy of her daughter. The truant officer is warning that “Felicia” faces time if her daughter doesn’t toe the line.

“If she puts me in jail, we’re all in trouble,” “Felicia” tells “Francesca.”

The family goes to see the truant officer, and they ask her if she can help them find food. No. Next, they line up at “Big Dave’s Pawn Shop,” and later at the community action agency. Here, they see the promise of help, but learn they must present a transportation pass to be served.

The need for a transportation pass simulates the need to have gas and a car, energy to walk where one needs to go, or a bus pass.

 “Whichever mode of transportation you were using, there is some sort of struggle that is incurred,” Jackson later explained. “The transportation pass symbolizes that struggle.”

There goes the third blow of the whistle. It’s apparent that the Fuentes family’s lack of resources and time is stymying meaningful progress.

“It’s symbolic that there’s never enough time to solve the problems,” Jackson said. “We’ve done simulations for schools where there were teachers and administrators . . . who don’t understand why parents don’t want to be involved, why they didn’t show up for parent-teacher night. There’s an assumption that their children aren’t their priority, and that’s not the case. They are running around doing so many things, often there are not enough hours in the day to make it to the school.

“The whistles symbolize I didn’t have a chance to cash my check, I didn’t make it to work, I missed the deadline to make a payment and now I have late fees,” Jackson added. “The whistle symbolizes the fact that even though I’m trying to do everything right, it’s still not working out for me.”

Week 4: Homeless

Transportation passes in hand, the Fuentes family returns to the community action agency, which now helps. “And you have no form of current income?” the man there asks.

The answer is no. He’s got an emergency food voucher and $245 in utility assistance for them. On the way to the utility office, the Fuentes family passes the Aber family’s home, where all of the chairs are turned upside down. It means they’ve been evicted.

“Generally, whenever someone is evicted, their house is padlocked,” Jackson explained after the simulation. “If you don’t flip the chairs, then people can still sit on them. You have to remove the ability for people to reassemble.”

Just as they’re learning that the utility voucher won’t cover everything they owe because the bill is past due and they owe a fee for it, the Fuentes family learns they, too, have been evicted.

The final whistle blows.

Everyone takes a seat, and Jackson wants to hear the group’s reactions to the 4 simulated weeks they’ve just lived.

“I felt embarrassed at times,” said Walker, a home-ownership program coordinator for the Huntington West Virginia Housing Authority. “Some of the things they [vendors] were asking for were so minor compared to the need that we had.”

Garry reveals she actually teared up when the community action agency man helped the family. Another woman noted, “It struck me how quickly we slid into poverty. Before I knew it, we lost our home.”

Walker notes that her family—the Fuentes family—managed to keep their utilities on, but got kicked out of their home entirely.

“We got our utilities set, and we were being evicted,” Garry agreed. “The result was we lost. For poor people, I feel it’s a rigged game. We as a culture need to practice compassion. Turn off the judgment in our brains and turn on our hearts.”

Not one of the participants fed his or her “family” each week. Most said they felt they were in a worse situation at the end of the simulated month than at the beginning.

 “So many of the resources we got were a temporary Band-Aid,” Walker reflected.

Relating to the impoverished

Walker signed up for the poverty simulation because she wants to continue to relate to those with whom she works.

“Sometimes, when you’re dealing with people with issues day in and day out, you get desensitized,” she said after the simulation ended. “I just want to remain passionate toward my clients.”

Michael Jones, a director of research at the University of Cincinnati, also participated in the simulation.

“One of the things I found surprising was how difficult it was to make those ends meet when you have limited funds, when you have limited access to social services, when issues just keep coming up,” he said. “How do you deal with that? It was good to be immersed in that environment and see some of the challenges that people face.”

Jackson hopes those Policy Summit attendees who participated in the simulation remember the hopelessness they felt.

“People need to be involved in what change looks like,” she said, asserting a need for regulation of check-cashing fees and questioning cuts to food assistance that she argues is already too small. “When there are opportunities for people to weigh in, contact a legislator, donate to an organization, [we hope] that they do that and are more informed now.”

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