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Walking in their shoes: An eye-opening experience simulating life in poverty

Participants in United Way's "Day in the Life" poverty simulation broke into families and tried to make ends meet. Dave Samson / The Forum

Your child comes home with a note from school asking for $10 to pay for a school field trip. For most in the area, that's not a big deal. But for the 1 in 9 people living in poverty in Cass or Clay counties, that small amount of money is enough to break the bank.

It's easy to get lost in facts and figures when it comes to poverty. But United Way of Cass-Clay (UWCC) is trying to get past the numbers and help people walk in the shoes of those living in poverty every day.

Earlier this week, United Way conducted "A Day in the Life - A Perspective on Poverty," a poverty simulation event in which people in the community are invited to role play what it's like to live with so little.

"It's not a game," says Kristina Hein, UWCC marketing and brand management director. "It's a simulation based on real-life stories of people who have sought help from Community Action Partnership."

Each participant is assigned a family and told which member of the family he or she will play. They are instructed to immerse themselves in the role to better sense how the stress of living in poverty manifests in each household.

I attended the event and came away with a better understanding of what poverty is like.

A day in the life

While I was told the poverty simulation wasn't a game, it was hard not to think of it that way when I was handed a card telling me I was Bart Boling, a 10-year-old boy, and my real-life co-worker was portraying my pregnant 16-year-old sister, Barbara.

We even said "Hi, Mom and Dad" as we met the two young women who would be playing our 42-year-old father Ben and 39-year-old mother Betty. Another young woman sat down and told us she was to play 8-year-old brother Brian. We found out Ben was a college-educated computer programmer who had just been laid off, while Betty was supporting the family with her job as a receptionist.

That was my first surprise: when I thought "poverty" I certainly didn't think about a college-educated computer programmer living in a middle-class suburb.

And that was the point.

"None of these families are the poorest of the poor," says Megan Jenson, UWCC community impact manager. "These are families on the cusp. They have jobs but they still struggle."

We were told the amount of the bills we had to pay each month including mortgage, utilities, student loans, credit cards and food. Then we had to figure out how to pay those bills on Betty's take-home monthly salary of $1,024. It was bleak.

We started the month $220 in the red, but the struggle was just starting. The first obstacle was how to get Betty to the bank to get money for her kids' school supplies when her husband had the car. We kids (Bart and Brian) could only manage to scrape together $5 of the $6 we were supposed to give our teacher. Thankfully, she kindly said, "That's okay" and also gave snacks to the kids in the classroom who complained they hadn't eaten that day.

When we got home from school, we were alone because Mom was at work and Dad was trying to look for a job and see what — if any — services our family qualified to tide us over until payday. After paying bills, we Bolings were only able to afford three small trips to the grocery store. None of us, even the pregnant teenager, visited the doctor. Things got worse when Betty was fired for being late because she was trying to arrange both child care and transportation with her limited time and money.

"Transportation was harder than I thought it would be," one participant said. "It's great to have a job, but how are you going to get there if you don't have a car? That turned out to be a big obstacle."

For the mom and dad in our family, another big issue was the lack of communication.

"I was at work half the time and felt like I didn't see him," said Rachel Gladue who played Betty. "When we were home, we figured out we had both spent money on transportation passes, so we had less money than we thought."

That caused stress that I can honestly say made me feel a little anxious even in this simulated scene. And it wasn't just me.

"I felt kind of helpless watching my parents go through this," said one participant also playing the role of a child. "It actually felt a little tense."

Another said, "I felt lost. I was at home by myself trying to survive. It's kind of a lost feeling for a child."

"You can see how disconnected these families can get," Jenson says. "You're doing what you can, but did you know what the kids did in school that day? Did you get to talk around the dinner table?"

As our bills piled up and our funds diminished, Dad pawned a camera and microwave oven. Other families chose to pawn their televisions.

Jenson pointed out that in simulations like these it's easy to make choices that will help your bottom line. But would you really want to pawn your television when you know it's your only source of entertainment and keeps your child company while he's home because you can't afford childcare? And how hard is it to say "no" to your child when they want to do things or go places their friends are going?

When the simulation was over after three hours, I felt a mentally exhausted and I was only a child "witnessing" my parents juggle our finances. None of us were lazy. It was hard work just to keep our heads above water.

That being said, at the end of our month we still didn't pay all of our bills, including our student loans or credit cards. If this were real life, we'd be worse off heading into next month. We kept our home because we paid our mortgage, but other families in the room weren't so lucky.

Again, these weren't the poorest in our society. They are the borderline families and the struggle was very real.

"These are regular people — our co-workers and friends," Jenson says. "You would probably never know what they're going through by looking at them. That's why it's so important to be compassionate."

United Way is focusing on four goals to tackle poverty in the area: reducing hunger and homelessness, preparing children to succeed, helping people be independent and lifting people out of poverty.

UWCC President Kristi Huber says after people attend poverty simulations like this one, they'll often ask, "What can I do to help?" She says one of the most important things to do is share the experience.

"Empathy is one of our best weapons against apathy which can destroy a community," she says. "Many people are just one decision away from financial ruin. Sometimes just reaching out and extending a hand can make the difference."

United Way of Cass-Clay is holding another poverty simulation on Dec. 7. Visit unitedwaycassclay.org for details.

5 facts about poverty in F-M

  • Poverty is defined as a family of four living on less than $24,600 a year.
  • One in 9 or 26,000 local people live in poverty.
  • One in 9 or 5,500 local children live in poverty.
  • A student who does not graduate from high school is two times more likely to live in poverty through adulthood.
  • The number of people living in poverty in Cass and Clay counties could fill Scheels Arena four times.
Tracy Briggs

‘The Great Indoors’ with Tracy Briggs appears every Thursday in The Forum. For more information go to her blog at thegreatindoors.areavoices.com.

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