What’s poor like?

Simulation offers a taste of low-income life

by W. Winston Skinner


Being poor is complicated — with many strands of life often working against each other even when seeking to find a better life.

This past week about 50 people got a taste of what it is like to be poor. A poverty simulation was held at Camp Meriwether near Luthersville. Members of the Leadership Meriwether group and the Leadership Redwood program from the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation participated along with other citizens from several counties.

Sponsors for the simulation were the Meriwether County Chamber of Commerce, Meriwether County Family Connection and the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.

Approximately 38.1 million U.S. citizens live below the poverty line, and moving from that place in society to a better one can be incredibly difficult. In addition, poverty impacts everyone — particularly people in communities where there are lots of indigent people.

“Just because we might not be in poverty, it doesn’t mean poverty isn’t our problem. It affects all of us,” said Carolyn McKinley, executive director of the Meriwether County Chamber.

Participants were assigned roles as members of low income families. The families then had to learn how to manage their resources — income, belongings that could be used for a loan or pawn, savings — to get through a month. Time was set aside for each week — with family members shopping, going to work and school, seeking help from agencies and ministries.

Families were assigned to tables where they looked through packets with play money, role assignments and other information. One of the families was living in a homeless shelter but the others all had a home or apartment.

Around the perimeter of the room were volunteers in spots representing a school, a faith-based charity, the Department of Family and Children Services, Community Action, the utility company, a pawn shop, a bank located at a retail supercenter and a payday loan company.

“This is not really a game, though at times it is comical,” said Susan Culpepper, the Douglas County Extension Service director and facilitator for the simulation. She told participants the profiles used in the simulation were developed in Missouri and “modeled after real people.”

The simulations illustrated how different facets of poverty were interrelated. Inadequate transportation can lead to income loss — or even job loss. Banks and helping agency offices often were closed when lower income workers could get to them. Banks also might limit services, or charge a fee, to people who did not have an account.

Pawn shops offered a fraction of what something was worth, and payday loans carried high interest.

Help from agencies and ministries was appreciated and helpful — but often only a tiny fraction of what families needed for utilities and housing. In addition, some government offices were “closed because of furlough days,” Culpepper explained. “There have been some budget cuts.

Bills paid late carried extra fees. Eventually, families could face eviction or lose their car if there was not sufficient money. Being homeless or without a vehicle then complicated their situation.

Culpepper told participants that while the profiles in the simulation did mirror the lives of people in poverty, those families “are not at the lower end of poverty, believe it or not.”

One aspect of the simulation was that the first week found many families failing to get some things done — like shopping for groceries or purchasing enough transportation passes to get through the next week. Families that have been self-sufficient but slip into poverty because of illness and job loss generally do not know where to get help or how.

Some of the volunteers representing helping agencies or ministries said people came to them saying they needed help but not being able to articulate a single, specific need. Part of that came from a sense of being overwhelmed as problems piled up.

Participants did begin to figure out some ways to combine trips, save money and access help as the program progressed. Problems, however, also grew for many of them.

As week three began, Culpepper noted, “There are lots of things happening. There are lots of things happening that are hard to solve.”

“I don’t know what to do about the stumbling blocks we’ve hit,” Hannah Flynn, a participant from the Greenville Lions Club and Greenville United Methodist Church, admitted.

Two of the families were coping with teenagers being jailed — one on a drug charge, another for delinquency. In another home, a 9-year-old was left home to care for an infant, and both were taken into DFACs custody.

At the close of the simulation, participants saw a film that profiled several families across the country coping with poverty. There also were speakers including Ausha Jackson, executive director of Strive2Thrive, a program in Albany that has had marked success moving people from poverty to self-sufficiency.

There also was time for discussion of the experience — and of poverty in the region. Culpepper noted that poor people spend more time, energy and thought simply surviving — figuring out how to pay bills, take care of their families and get work.

McKinley agreed. “When people are living in poverty, your whole life is concerned with survival. There is no time for nurture — for talking (with one’s children) about how you did in school,” she said.

At the front line of dealing with such problems are teachers and schools. Teachers generally are aware when children do not have enough to eat or have other needs that are not being met. “Teachers and schools have a lot of challenges,” Culpepper said.

Pride can be an obstacle for people getting help, although families will tend to seek help when their children need something.

“Transportation is an issue” for many low income people, particularly in counties where public transit is limited, Culpepper said.

Kathy Elliott, who runs the Girl Scout camp, acted as head of the interfaith agency during the simulation. She noted that people often did not know about the agency or about how it might help.

“Getting the word out to the people who need it is challenging,” she said.

Jennifer Corcione, executive director of Meriwether Family Connection, said she often finds people unable to fully articulate what they need. Multiple challenges and problems are buffeting them, and they are frantic with worry.

“They are in a tailspin,” Corcione said. “They come, and they just know they need something.”

“Many times individuals in poverty are isolated from other members of the community,” Jackson observed. “They’re not able to plan because they can’t think that far.”

Several participants were struck by how a lack of education was a major obstacle for people seeking to get ahead. “Without a high school diploma,” Stephanie Mahone reflected, “you can’t really do anything.”

McKinley observed, however, that the link between education and a higher income may not be clear to everyone. Someone may be tempted to quit school and look for work if the family is in a bind and “you’re living in a situation where your single mother dropped out of school, your older brother dropped out of school.”

Jackson said poor people often need people to help them navigate “the hidden rules of class.” Strive2Thrive seeks to work with people over an extended period of time and pairs them with middle class mentors who can give them encouragement and insight.

Participants left the Girl Scout camp with a deeper understanding of what poverty means — and what it does to people. McKinley reflected on the breadth “of what we need to deal with” to address poverty.

“Once you’re in the poverty cycle, it is so hard to get out of it,” she added. It is vitally important to “help them find resources and break that cycle,” McKinley said.

Rhonda Fuller of Leadership Redwood said caring people volunteering their time can make a huge difference.

“We can’t solve everything, but each of us can do something. That’s what we have to think about,” McKinley said.

Jackson said when Strive2Thrive began, lot of effort was made “to get to the heart of the problem.” In Albany, there were many groups addressing aspects of poverty, but no group seeking to solve the problem itself.

“A lot of what we’ve experienced today is very sobering,” Culpepper said. She noted, however, that poor people have hope — hope for their children, hope for a better tomorrow. “These are hard, heavy issues, and they’re not going to be solved in one day,” Culpepper said.

“Many people in poverty are not lazy, and they do not want to be there. They just want a hand up,” Jackson said.

“What you’ve brought out today is really helpful,” said Jesse O’Neal, a participant who works at RWSIR. It would be wonderful, he said, if there were ways to help people on the front end of poverty — “to keep from getting to this point.”

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