Frustrated. Confused. Stressed. Chaos.
These were the words GPP members used to describe their brief and simulated experience of poverty.
GPP hosted Beth Templeton on June 12, 2017 for an Our Eyes Were Opened poverty simulation at United Ministries. The simulation places participants in fictional families and households with a variety of circumstances common to people living in poverty: low wage or no jobs, a lack of transportation, health issues, and not enough money to make ends meet. Then, participants walk through a month (in four 15-minute increments representing weeks) and try to balance getting to work on time, making it to the Department of Social Services or doctor’s office before closing time, and filling out endless paperwork only to discover a key piece of information is missing requiring a return visit the next day.
It was indeed frustrating and confusing and demoralizing. I was assigned the part of a 36 year old unemployed woman whose disabled mother in-law lived with me and my husband and teenaged daughter. I spent the hour rushing from place to place, turning over what money I eventually earned to my teenager to buy groceries at the “super center” where she worked. Thankfully, the GPP member playing the teen was organized and kept tabs of what we’d earned and what we owed (which is actually probably not terribly uncommon; children in poverty often must take on adult responsibilities), because I was scrambling to just get by. During our frantic month, I didn’t have a moment to breath, let alone ask my daughter how she was doing in school. We just needed to keep the power bill paid and food in our pantry.
The experience was profound. As one participant remarked, “It debunks the perception that the poor have done something to deserve living that way.” Truly, I saw no way out for my fictional family, no matter how hard we all worked.
The GPP members present discussed what the takeaways were for us as funders. Beth pointed out that the simulation highlights three levels of poverty to consider:
The symptoms of poverty. Food, shelter, and clothing are the easiest way to help, and certainly are needed. But after scrambling around for the basics during my one hour experience, I can say that finally receiving a paycheck once I got a job and knowing all that it would buy was far more satisfying than a free bag of food would have been. But the food is an important stop-gap.
Changing the causes for the individual. Job training to qualify me for a job other than a receptionist would have helped me. Moving my husband from an $8.25/hour job would have helped our whole family. Bringing health care for my sick mother in-law to our house rather than having to get her to the doctor would have made things easier for all of us.
Changing the system for everyone. During my third “week” of poverty, I threw up my hands and thought, why does it have to be so hard? Or, as one person said in our debrief session, “Who makes up all these crazy rules?!” The systems level issues of transportation, affordable housing, banking (rather than check cashing services), social services that are accessible and kind; all of these things could lift my fictional family out of poverty and help us contribute to our community.
Working at all of these levels is necessary. But as one participant pointed out, “If funders want to redesign the system, it’s clear we need input from the people we are helping because they know the system better than anyone.”
To learn more about Our Eyes Were Opened or to find out about hosting a poverty simulation, visit http://oewo.org/contact/.