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Intermountain AmeriCorps Article from the Wenatchee World.
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Experiencing poverty: Participants in a recent community demonstration reflect on how ‘poor’ feels By Rufus Woods, Common Ground June 4, 2013
Recently, several dozen individuals gathered at Wenatchee’s Community Center to take part in a poverty simulation, sponsored by the Chelan-Douglas Community Action Council.
World reporter Dee Riggs and photographer Mike Bonnicksen participated in that project and produced a compelling report about what it was like to put themselves in the shoes of individuals with extremely limited resources.
It was an eye-opener for many of us who participated. Trying to make ends meet and juggling multiple responsibilities with desperately few resources is extremely challenging, and we only “lived” that reality for an afternoon.
We asked several other participants to offer some of their insights about the poverty simulation. Some participants have years of experience dealing with people in poverty. The other group included community members with little background with the poor. We came away with a deeper understanding about poverty.
Here’s a sampling of their perspectives …
Linda Limbeck Supervisor at the Chelan Douglas Community Action Council:
“I believe the Poverty Simulation strongly reflects the reality of living in poverty in Chelan and Douglas Counties. We see it every day. People coming into our office who have lost their jobs, are now being evicted or are on the verge of being evicted from their homes, because they cannot pay their rent. Utilities being shut off for non-payment, because they do not have the financial resources to pay. All of these realties are part of the simulation.
“Poor people are proud people, too. They have families to take care of, they may or may not have jobs or a roof over their heads, but they do the best they can to make ends meet. Some people think that just because someone is poor, that all they do is use and abuse the ‘system’ and not all poor people are like that. Some families are too proud and sincerely try to make ends meet without the use of welfare, or food stamps.”
Kristina Stepper Owner, EBD Consulting
“The conversation in our ‘family’ revolved exclusively around how to best make ends meet; it was a constant source of stress. All of my energy needed to be focused on accomplishing the one thing that would make the greatest impact on our ‘family’s’ survival. While attending school was a priority, it paled in comparison to keeping my part-time job so that we had money to buy food.
“In our ‘family,’ we were fortunate that my ‘younger brother’ spoke French, as that was the only language spoken at the ‘grocery store.’ I learned firsthand how helpless it feels to be completely clueless as to what someone is saying, and to have to depend on a child to interpret.
“Another challenge was navigating the public service agencies. One issue was that they were scattered all over the ‘city.’ Another was red tape. In one instance, I sat in line waiting to get forms to apply for day care assistance for my ‘toddler,’ only to learn that I wasn’t eligible to apply since I wasn’t the head of our household. But by the time my ‘father’ got off work, the agency was closed.
“If this brief simulation is anywhere near accurate, surviving in poverty is hard work. It takes careful planning, making the most of every moment of every day, learning to navigate complicated public service systems, prioritizing, and paying careful attention to the very best use of every penny. Stressful is an understatement.”
Linda Price Housing Programs Supervisor, Community Action Council:
“I have been working with low income families for many years. I participated in the poverty simulation as the Receptionist for DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services).
“The poverty simulation gave people a very small reflection on what low-income families experience in Chelan and Douglas counties on a daily basis.
“Most of the families that we work with do not want to be in the position that they are in but they have a lot of struggles trying to make things better. During this time it’s even more difficult for people to get ahead because of the job market. The people that are working get minimum wage jobs and still don’t have enough money to survive on.”
Tom Nees Pastor, Missio Dei Community Church
“First of all, we entered into the room and each of us were given an identity that was not of our choosing — I was a 17-year-old boy with a 14-year-old sister whose mother was unemployed and father was no longer in the home. When this depth of poverty is not your regular daily reality, it is easy to believe that poverty is tied to a series of choices when in fact, many times poverty itself seems to do the choosing.
“Secondly, many have heard the Chinese Proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ As someone who is interested and involved in community development, I have been seeking ways to help teach people to fish. This exercise, however, left me asking the question, ‘Who owns the pond?’ ‘How do you gain access to it?’ I was awakened to the difficulty of navigating through the system.”
Louise Verellen Executive director, Wenatchee Literacy Council
“Some simulated situations translated better than others. Through individual scenarios, participants recreated what people in poverty experience to successfully access (and by successfully I mean managing to barely get by) the necessities of life, medical attention, social services, and low-paying jobs. During the simulation, as a ‘provider,’ I could see participants’ wheels turning. Did they have the proper forms? Were they completed to the agency’s satisfaction? Did they get all the information needed from the clerk they talked to? Would there be enough money?
“As a society and a community we must acknowledge the connection between poverty and the lack of education, and what that costs everyone. Personally and professionally, the biggest stereotype I have encountered is that if people are in this situation it is their fault; they are lazy, dumb, and/or devious. At the Literacy Council I am reminded every day that people in poverty also have unique talents and great wealth in spirit and experience. Most are willing to share if given an opportunity. People who come through the door of the Literacy Council want to improve their language skills because they are looking for opportunities to improve their lives and the lives of their families, and they are willing to work hard for it.”
Trina Heuchert United Way of Chelan & Douglas Counties
“Upon entering the simulation, I received the role of a single mother, with two kids (a boy and a girl) … a role I would never have chosen to play again in my life, since in my past I was a single parent, living off food stamps and HUD assistance. I thought, given I had lived the role in the past, that the simulation should be a breeze. I was so wrong! Truth is, I never realized back then, when I was at that low point in my life, how good I actually had it!
“In the simulation, my husband had walked out on me, leaving me with absolutely nothing but $10 in cash and a couple of bus passes. I literally had to start from scratch, with no bank account, no job, and no public services. Compounding the issue was my oldest child of 17 years, who had dropped out of school, gotten another girl pregnant and was into crime and the drug scene.
“This is where the bulk of my stress came from. I may have had to live in poverty before, but I’ve never had to experience the stresses of trying to provide for my family with such little means, while also trying to cope with a troubled child. I experienced emotions ranging from stress to anger to guilt and on the rare occasion when something went well, relief. The thing I noticed the most is that my children, who clearly needed direction, were not getting it from me.
“When we are placed into circumstances that are beyond our control and living life changes to basic survival, it is amazing how much the meaning of good parenting morphs into providing basic food and shelter, rather than positive role modeling and guidance, and sound reasoning can change from an ‘I should give back and help others’ perspective to a ‘you owe me’ attitude.”