Struggle and Survival
Living in Poverty for a Month (Simulation)
By Dana Getz
It doesn’t take long for the quiet church basement to turn raucous as participants realize the overwhelming amount of tasks to accomplish in little time—a mother must get her child to daycare with limited transportation; a man must find work to afford his overdue rent; a teen must navigate juvenile detention after bringing a weapon to school.
This diverse group of people consisting mainly of local church members, social service workers, and college students, are not actually experiencing these challenges; rather, they have joined together on a Saturday morning at First Presbyterian Church for a poverty simulation. Cosponsored by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Downtown Pittsburgh Ministerium, this experience immersed participants in the many challenges facing the impoverished in our community.
The simulation leaders organized participants into groups of three to five “family” members with specific roles to play. They had to work together to address their basic needs of food, shelter, health/childcare, transportation, employment and safety. To help them do this, a grocery store, school, bank, and other services were located around the room. The event simulated one month, with families allotted 12 minutes for each “week” to navigate services and familial responsibilities.
One of the co-leaders of this program, Pastor Jennifer McCurry of First Lutheran Church, hoped that this simulation might bring some empathy for how difficult it can be for the poor to navigate financial instability and complex social systems.
“For people who have a more secure and privileged position, it can be difficult to imagine the stress that comes with [insecurity],” explained McCurry.
Throughout the event there was indeed stress. In the first week, many families still had enough money to pay partial bills and access childcare and transportation. However, by the second week money began to run low and “luck of the draw” cards were delivered. Tom Litz, a co-leader of the event from DHS, called these the “hand of fate” dealt to each family. They delivered positive news such as qualifying for assistance, or unexpected challenges such as emergency dental work or a broken window.
For families living below the poverty level, which according to the U.S. Census V2018 is approximately 11.2 percent of people living in Allegheny County and 22.0 percent in the city of Pittsburgh, these unexpected expenses can mean financial ruin and even homelessness.
For the simulation, the “Duntley Family” wasn’t far from either of those crises. Together they debated how to pay their utilities. Like many people in difficult financial situations, they did not have a bank account and had to resort to a check cashing service. They needed to cash their check in order to pay their bills, and yet they couldn’t afford the “Quick Cash” fees. Other families began turning to the local pawn shop to help make ends meet.
A school holiday in week three forced families to spend significant time seeking childcare. Many participants began making tough decisions. Dr. Jennifer Roth, a psychology professor who played the grocery store owner, noted that multiple families chose not to fill medical prescriptions.
Charles Franklin, a simulation volunteer and EMT, played the role of a neighborhood criminal. He robbed one family at gunpoint and stole another’s possessions after leaving their home unattended. He also took advantage of desperation by selling much-needed transportation passes at a significant mark-up.
By the fourth week the bank overturned multiple families’ chairs to symbolize eviction. Although there were social services available, many participants were overwhelmed and confused by exactly how to get help.
After an exasperating “month” participants were given the chance to debrief and share insights gained from the experience. Elise Tate, who played an employer in the simulation, realized how difficult it might be for the working poor to succeed.
“People may be perceived as lazy if they do not show up to work on time,” Tate reflected, “but they might be dealing with other struggles such as dropping their kids off at daycare.”
Theresa Chalich, a Trinity Cathedral volunteer, found frustration in her role as an 85-year-old homeless woman. She was given some services (such as a housing voucher), but very little support from caseworkers and community agencies who seemed to know little about elderly services.
“Families were really trying to get out of their bad situation, but were dealt difficult blows [randomly] that mimicked real life,” observed Scott Potter, a volunteer for Red Door ministry and a school teacher for the simulation. However, he also recognized that some aspects of poverty, such as hunger, cannot be simulated. For example, midway through the event, participants were called out for not addressing basic needs. Two families became so preoccupied with pressing bills that they completely overlooked purchasing food for two weeks.
Although community advocate Kyle Neumann had hoped to learn more specifically about living below the poverty line in Pittsburgh, the simulation helped him appreciate the added challenges that health issues can bring to the poor. In his role as a grandfather with mobility issues he could not move without the help of his family, leaving them without enough time to address all of their needs.
Many of the participants shared their realization of how difficult it could be for people to seek out government services while tending to dependents and making ends meet with little time and money.
Pastor McCurry shared her hope that this kind of event will encourage participants to translate their simulated experience into real world change.
“For people who are privileged to receive above a living wage, it’s hard to even imagine the kinds of challenges our neighbors regularly face,” explained McCurry. She believes that simulations such as these offer participants a new perspective that can lead to “growth in empathy and a change in relationships with one’s neighbors of different socioeconomic groups, which is qualitative and can be hard to measure. Participants can also develop new habits or redirected habits of political activism, volunteerism, and/or philanthropy in ways that more helpfully support or contribute to life in our community.”
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