It is a bold move towards unraveling many of the myths that surround the modern American family currently in poverty. Gayle Gifford of Cause and Effect summed it up as the views that many upper and middle class Americans have about those in poverty. “For many of my middle-class peers, the notion that lots of people in our community simply cannot earn enough to pay the minimum costs of food, shelter and health care, no matter how hard they work, just makes no sense in light of their own life experiences. To them, it seems the poor have chosen poverty.”
The Community Action Poverty Simulation, originally developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, seeks to enlighten people on what it truly means to live in poverty and the process on how to get out. The poverty represented is not living on a dollar a day or less, but living in conjunction with government assistance, difficult circumstances and the daily stress one carries around while in poverty.
The simulation is divided into a series of 15 minute intervals each representing a week in a month. Members of the simulation are broken up into families and assigned roles. They are also given scenarios and background on their roles to better understand the conditions they are living in. When the buzzer sounds each member of the family carries out the duties of daily life while in poverty. Many tried to find work, but due to past histories ended up in the unemployment line with no money. These same people would also have to find alternate means of funding for unexpected bills, groceries and bus tokens while simultaneously trying to provide for their children.
Circumstances of the simulation would intervene and some participants would have their houses robbed or lose vital paperwork that was needed to prove something to a government official. Others found themselves stealing from other families in the simulation. All this stress just to make it through the day. And this is before any of the groups arrive at the part about getting out of poverty. The short time frames and mountains of work force the participants to make many of the stressful decisions that thousands of Americans have to make daily. The choice whether to feed one’s children or to pay rent is a very real decision and one many people had to make in the simulation.
This poverty simulation program was first used in 2006. It has continued to open eyes all across the country in places like ATSU in Arizona, Davenport University in West Michigan, Ozark Technical Community College in the Midwest, the court systems of New York and even the city employees of Chicago, and many more churches and communities across the nation.
The results have been what a lot of the community leaders were looking for. As an Ozark Technical Community College administrator realized, “There’s a point where it registers that it’s an everyday struggle for many people in this community.” The experience has prompted Ms. Casper, a participant in the Chicago simulation to say, “I felt really below the earth because everybody was so cold. This world has to change in some way.” Still another participant said, I was “waiting for it to be over, but in real life it doesn’t end.”
There are many who feel the program to be a success, but it has also fallen under fire by many of the organizers of volunteer programs and those that have risen up from the depths of poverty. Cheryl Jackson of the Minnie Food Pantry in Plano, TX says “allowing people to steal as part of a poverty simulation isn’t effective.” A former poverty dweller from Creating Bridges in Chicago echoed this sentiment after completing the simulation. “You don’t go to stealing in the first week or the first month. It takes longer than that. You try everything else first.”
— Frederick Wood II