Poverty Simulation Ends with Chaos, Anxiety and Understanding

Perhaps you have rarely felt the sting of severe hunger or ran out of money to buy food only a week into the month. Maybe you have never had to stretch one disposable diaper on your child for a day, or more or looked in a dumpster for food.

Many do.

Thousands of Utahns do know the sting of poverty and exist in the shadows of our vibrant communities. Hundreds of advocates work each day to support those in our cities and towns who are marginalized. Community Action Partnership of Utah held it’s annual poverty conference last week. Hundreds of social workers, advocates and people from state and private agencies that serve the poor were in attendance.

This last year President Obama proposed deep cuts to Community Service Block Grants or CSBGs . These federal grants, distributed by the states, fund much of the anti poverty work in our communities and in towns across the United States. Anti poverty work helps the most fragile members of society. Anti poverty work, like the work done by CSBG funds often keeps people alive. In Utah CSBG funds food pantries, rapid rehousing and homelessness prevention, and job readiness programs.

Most of us who have a computer to read a blog online are lucky. We probably have the ability to purchase a modest steak when we feel like grilling. A trip to the grocery store doesn’t leave us keeping detailed totals in our heads and wringing our hands at the register. We can buy toiletries like toothpaste, toilet paper and shampoo when we need to. If we get a cavity we go to a dentist. There is no chance that a cavity will lead to a life threatening situation. Most of you reading this have adequate access to transportation to get to work, errands and appointments.

    Prior to the beginning of the recent annual CAP Utah conference, attendees were invited to join a poverty simulation. About 80 took advantage of the opportunity to walk in the shoes of their clients. The simulation took place for an hour and was designed to simulate a month living in poverty. The exercise allowed poverty specialists an insight into the lives of their clients.

    Participants were assigned an identity and they were sent to sit in family groups. If they did not find a family group when they walked in they went to the homeless shelter. Community services were put on the walls around the room and facilitators sat at the tables under their respective signs.

Participants were given transportation allotments, an assigned income, some basic family resources and a bevy of impediments to success. Some of the barriers to financial success were being elderly, disabled, having disabled family members, being underage, recently being divorced, being teenaged parents or grandparents caring for grandchildren and a few didn’t have families at all. Several participants had limited English and struggled to communicate with their communities.  For the next hour participants rushed from their jobs to errands. They stood in long lines and community services closed before they were able to get in.

“I really felt a sense of desperation. All these people were in the same situation as me and I just stopped caring. I wanted to climb over them, “ said one participant following the exercise. She works full time helping people living in poverty access community resources.

In the beginning people were orderly and respectful. By week three people had pawned most of their family possessions including basic appliances. Some were stealing from each other and one participant robbed the bank.

By the fourth week this microcosm of society had totally broken down. Children had not been fed and the police couldn’t not keep up with complaints.

“I was surprised how much people cheated.  They did things they normally wouldn’t do out of desperation.” said  ’42 year old Albert’ who was actually a young woman.

Being poor is extremely stressful, so stressful in fact that health conditions may develop as a result of stress. Preexisting conditions are exacerbated by the daily toll worry and frustration cause the poor. Routine tasks when one is poor are often impossible. Something as simple as a trip to a grocery store that is too far away to walk to can cause enormous amounts of anxiety and seem impossible.

“At one point I pawned some jewelry and a camera for two 13 year old girls and I didn’t want to give them their money,” said one man.

There is sometimes an assumption that benefits are simple to obtain, large and extravagant. Benefits aren’t simple for people with low incomes to obtain. Food Stamp benefits only cover a portion of food expenses and are meant to be temporary. The program is not designed to provide all of the food one needs. Food stamps cannot be used to purchase anything other than food such as toiletries, soap, or women’s hygiene items. Salt Lake CAP works with those in poverty to find community resources. Sometimes people living in poverty are sent running around only to find an agency no longer has the funding for a program.

“The church sent me to the agency over there and then they didn’t have they help that I needed and I didn’t have the right paperwork. I never did make it to get a job because I was running in circles,” said a young woman holding a blue baby doll. The doll was her infant in the simulation.

 This is often the case. Obtaining help can be frustrating.  For instance, in order to receive SNAP or food stamp benefits applicants don’t speak to a caseworker. They are required to use a phone. They commonly have to call the Utah state office multiple times in order to maintain benefits, complete paperwork and call wait times routinely exceed 15 minutes. For someone with no home phone and/ or a limited cell phone plan you can see how even getting a simple question answered can be a challenge. Benefit recipients can use a phone at a DWS office.  DWS recently put much of their access online to help with long call waiting times and set up a login system for benefit recipients.  It is a good first step but for people without a computer, internet and few computer skills, it may still be impossible to utilize.

Collectively, community agencies are making an effort to work together and help those people living in poverty take steps that will lift them out of poverty. In order to best serve their clients it is helpful for workers to understand where they are coming from. If they have not lived in poverty themselves they must seek out experiences in order to help them better understand their clients. The poverty simulation provided badly needed insight for many Utah poverty agency workers.

“ I understand now. This is why people do what they do. The desperation is overwhelming…. Being a social service worker is very difficult. You give them a list of what they should do and often they lose it. Now I see it’s just too much for them to handle. They yell at me. Now I see they are stressed but you know many times I do take it personally in my job. Now I won’t and I will listen more, ” said one Salt Lake advocate.

The poverty simulation was designed to further understanding in order to better serve the poor. For most participants it did just that.


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