Simulation gives glimpse of hard life
Some were evicted after two weeks’ time. Others pawned their microwave or furniture to make ends meet. One teenager turned to a life of crime.
It was a humbling three hours for participants in the Northwoods Poverty Simulation, held Nov. 12 at the YMCA of the Northwoods. Their misfortunes were pretend-created with temporary identities, fake money and tables for government agencies-but they skimmed the surface of reality.
“The goal was to reach people, and have them develop empathy and a better understanding of what its like to live in poverty,” said Erica Brewster, the Family Living Agent for the Oneida County UW-Extension and the organizer of the simulation. “We want people walking out of the program to make a pledge to help. That’s where programs like this pays off.”
And such a role-playing, interactive simulation is a fun, but trying path to understanding. Participants pretend to be members of a low-income community attempting to survive four 15-minute weeks of poverty-as Social Security-collecting senior citizens, single moms with young children, or as the kids themselves.
As a participant in the simulation, I drew the role of Dan Duntley, a 14-year-old student at Rhinelander High School. Dan, his 15-year-old sister and his mother were recently abandoned by Dan’s father, leaving the family with a massive amount of debt, no food in the house and $10 in cash.
What began as a life-size game for 42 Oneida County residents quickly turned into a stressful reality check. Participants posing as local agencies-banks, grocery stores, schools-shut down, ignored or denied others in need of basic amenities, much like many agencies sometimes have to do in real life.
“We had many participants that worked for service agencies that used it as in-service training,” said Brewster. “When you work on the other side of the table from people in trouble, you can sometimes get jaded. Being on the other side, if only for a few hours, can help bring things back into focus.”
Poverty may be hush-hush in parts of the Northwoods, but it’s there. Every day, thousands of northern Wisconsin residents face the real-life versions of the stress and frustration many participants in the program felt. Many participants failed miserably, and were quick victims of eviction or starvation. Others turned to a life of crime, including my imaginary 15-year-old neighbor. The participants breathed sighs of relief, knowing it was just a game, but new realizations were apparent.
For instance, after attending a week of classes, my “sister” and I were forced to stay home the next week. We had no transportation passes to get to school, and our “mother” had no money to purchase more. While Mom was out applying for Food Share benefits, we were stuck at home, hopeless and frustrated.
“The effects of making mistakes when you’re poor are monumental,” said Brewster. “One thing goes wrong, and it sends shock waves into your whole week. Most people don’t know how to live under so much pressure.”
I quickly made one of those drastic mistakes. After scraping together our remaining money, we purchased one transportation pass. I was given the responsibility of going to the pawn shop with most of the family’s valuables-at a cash value of $300-to try to get enough for our $250 rent payment.
Sensing my frustration and desperation, the pawn shop owner low balled me a $25 offer for all the family’s possessions. Shocked, I quickly countered, asking for $50. We compromised at $40.
I felt like I won, but in reality, I was just postponing the inevitable. I purchased several transportation passes and some groceries, and before long, that money was history. The family’s rent payment, past-due utility bills and a bank loan that had gone to collections due to our irresponsible father still loomed like an anvil over our heads.
We managed to scrape by for another two weeks. Mom visited the food pantry, so we ate on the weekends. The free lunch program through the school district sustained me during the week. Mom applied for government assistance, but soon found that it required a 60 day waiting period.
If we could just hold on, there was hope. The government was going to come to our rescue. However, at the end of week four, my sister and I returned home to find that we’d been evicted from our family’s modest two-bedroom apartment, a failure-to-pay notice taped to the door. We were homeless. All hope was lost. Then we heard a whistle, signalling the end of the simulation.
According to Brewster, simulations such as these attempt to be as lifelike as possible. Still, it’s impossible to take all the factors of poverty into account.
“While this simulation dealt with a lot of barriers people in poverty situations face, there are many problems that get left out,” said Brewster. “For the most part we don’t touch on drug and alcohol abuse, and crime is only a very small portion of the simulation. In reality, those factors play a much greater role, and lead to much more complicated situations.”
In the end, the participants dispersed with a better understanding of the world directly around them. When I arrived home that evening, my 21/2-year-old son was eating his supper. He’s never known what it’s like to be hungry and frustrated, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he never will. That’s what this simulation was all about-putting yourself in someone else’s shoes that has extra challenges in their everyday life. It’s about taking ownership of those roles, and trying to understand them. It’s about having empathy for those that are struggling.
“If you’re not in it, it’s hard for anyone to really have a grasp of what it’s like day to day, week to week,” Brewster said. “It’s survival.”