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Guilt is a powerful emotion. Because of it, I spent Saturday night navigating the world of a 13-year-old girl living in poverty.
My mother in law and a good friend of ours organized an event based on Missouri’s Community Action Poverty Simulation. I didn’t RSVP until days before the event. Let’s face it. Who wants to spend a beautiful Saturday evening imagining life in poverty? I certainly didn’t. I came up with all sorts of reasons not to go but in the end, I went. The women who were running the event have done a lot to support my work over the years. So I went. To be fair. Or so I thought.
It turns out that this event so radically changed my thought process that it physically exhausted me. The man who facilitated our work came up to me at the end of the program to make sure I was all right. “You look so tired.”, he said.
Here is how the simulation worked:
We sat in a small grouping of chairs that would become our family. In an envelope was a family profile describing who we would ‘be’ for the remainder of the hour. During this time, we had to work with the assets we were given to survive for a simulated month.
The month was broken in to four, twelve-minute weeks with 3 minute weekends in between. Each week, you went to work or school and paid our expenses. Along the way, we were handed cards that described a change in direction and plight.
Here is a brief description of my ‘family.’
The father, Paulo was not in the home. He was recently divorced and has custody of the four children. He has no contact with his ex-wife and she has failed to pay child support. He was incarcerated at the end of last month and can not pay bail. He typically works 40 hours/week for $10.75 per hour, for $1,517/per month after taxes.
A son Pablo, 21, typically a student at a local community college takes charge of the family for the month.
There are twin daughters, Patricia and Penelope, age 13, in junior high school.
And a son, Pedro, age 3.
At the start of the month, the family has $100. They also have a few items, such as a small amount of jewelry, a microwave oven and a camera.
Their housing, rent of $620.00, and child care, $85 per week, had already been paid for. Even with these large payments taken care of the following items remained:
$1 per trip for transportation (to represent gas, bus pass, or subway card)
$110 per week for food
$235 per month for utilities (gas, electric and phone)
$60 per month for clothes
$40 per month for miscellaneous items
The week began when the facilitator blew a whistle and ended when he blew it again. I started to dread that whistle. I never had enough time or enough money to accomplish very basic tasks. Playing a 13 girl was beyond exhausting.
In summary, we only had enough money to buy food during one of the four weeks. After applying for food stamps, our wallet was stolen and we were given only a very small amount of money to replace our original funds. The police filed a claim but were unable to do anything else. This left us without ID making it nearly impossible to navigate. We attempted to pawn a few of our valuables but after waiting in a very long line, we were told that the shop was not accepting them. At times the pawn shop did take our things but for a fraction of fair market value. We were unable to pay our utilities so they were shut off. Shortly after, we were evicted. We never understood why we were evicted but we had no time to talk to the management. We were too busy navigating the long lines at the pawn shop and social services to try to collect enough money to buy food. At 13, the twin girls were too young to work. Each weekend, we talked about the 21-year-old brother dropping out of community college to get a job (he hadn’t been able to get to any classes anyway) but he was unable to get to the hospital which was hiring because he was negotiating with the police, buying groceries or waiting on-line to pay the utilities. The 13-year-old girls were left to care for the 3-year-old, bringing him to child care before school, picking him up after and taking him with them wherever they went.
I am having a hard time wrapping my head around this experience but here are the main things I learned:
When living in poverty, time, money and transportation are incredibly important. Nearly all your cognitive resources go in to figuring out how to have enough of each.
Feeding your family becomes your number one priority. Obtaining money for food and transportation to get to the store becomes all-consuming. While the 21-year-old in our simulation was clearly motivated to further his education, he was unable to go to classes at all during our month as he was forced in to the role of head of the household.
Before the simulation, I always wondered why people in poverty didn’t ‘just go to community college’ to break the cycle. Now I know that they are busy trying to keep their heads above water.
Concentrating in school is nearly impossible. As the 13-year-old in the family, I was completely unable to focus on the school work I was given to complete during my simulated school day. My mind was constantly worried about the 3-year-old at day care and what our older brother was accomplishing to get us money. I hurried from school each day to pick up the baby and do something to try to help our situation. I considered skipping school so that I could go to the pawn shop while our brother went to the police station to report the robbery or to social services to apply for food stamps.
Before the simulation, I thought that our education system was failing our poor children. Now I know that it is the cycle of poverty that is failing them. The best teachers with the most current materials and expert teaching practices can not teach hungry children who are worried about where they will sleep that night.
There is no time to relax together as a family. Our entire weekend time was spent strategizing over how to survive the following week. There was no time to relax and certainly no time for completing homework, playing or reading aloud to the 3-year-old.
Before the simulation, I thought that putting books in the hands of poor children was the answer. Now I know that these parents want to read to their children but they need to feed and shelter them first.
Moving in to a homeless shelter was a relief. After our eviction, we were lucky enough to secure the last spots in the homeless shelter. It was a huge relief to be there as food was provided. I had an incredibly hard time going to school the week we were in the shelter because we lost our spot when we left. I tried to skip out of school early to secure my spot.
Before the simulation, I thought that there was always a place for the homeless to go. Now I know that people can consider themselves ‘lucky’ to get a spot in a shelter.
I would have done desperate things for money. We learned in our discussion after the simulation, that there were some steps left out of our examples. In some simulations, there are drug dealers and pimps. Our facilitator quoted a statistic that within 3 days of being homeless, a teenage girl will consider selling her body for money.
Before the simulation I would have told you that only the weak and promiscuous would sell drugs or prostitute themselves. Now I know that people make impossibly hard choices to support their families.
Our facilitator shared that after going through an experience like this, people will be motivated to create change for 20 days. After that the emotion and the shock will wear off and people will go back to their every day lives. Here’s to making something incredible happen before I forget this experience.