We’ve all heard the adage “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” And while we can strive to live with empathy, sometimes it is hard to imagine what it would be like to live as another person for a day, a week or a month. What is another person’s life really like? How do their family struggles affect their everyday thoughts and actions?
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in one of the Community Action Program’s “Poverty Simulations.” CAP hosts simulations throughout the year so that community members can start a dialogue about the realities of poverty and how we can work together to address it.
The simulations operate as a role-playing game. When I walked in the room, I was paired with 3 students from a Millersville University social work class, and we were given a new family profile. I was now Ned Netter, age 57, the father-in-law in our family, with health issues that have stripped my ability to care for myself. Our family included my employed son, his wife and their 15-year-old daughter.
The simulation was broken down into four 15-minute segments, each representing a week in the life of a family living in poverty. Our weeks would begin with the father going to work, the 15-year-old going to school, and the mother in our family trying to take care of mounting bills- mortgage, groceries, clothing, utilities, prescriptions, car loans- all while carting me around because I was unable to care for myself. Often, we would lose precious hours in the day waiting for a paycheck to come home, just so we could purchase “transportation” credits to travel to the Super Center or Utility Company to pay off an installment of a bill. We never had time to talk to our daughter about school and her projects. We had to pawn our microwave and jewelry to make payments. The disability check and food stamps ran out quickly, and just when you thought you had a plan for pulling it all off, you would get slapped with something unexpected- someone would need flu medication or school supplies, or you would need to spend part of your day reapplying for food stamps. Our house was even robbed because we lived in an unsafe neighborhood.
At the end of the day, everything was about money. We were living in the “tyranny of the moment,” as one participant described it- just doing enough to get by right now, while trying to balance a check book to the pennies. And every family in the simulation was unique- other families had obstacles including pregnancy, incarceration, addiction, dependent relatives, and medical conditions. Needless to say, it mirrored real life, and real life is messy, especially if you lack resources and social clout.
But the sad reality of the simulation is that poverty is not a game. 38.1 million Americans live below the poverty threshold, which in 2013 is $23,550 for a family of four. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 55,000 individuals living in poverty in Lancaster County alone, including 20,000 children. And it takes a community to tackle the obstacles involved.
This spring, the Community Foundation partnered with CAP to fund* a new program called “Circles” which educates the community through simulations like these, but also empowers real families living in poverty now. Families in the program, from Lancaster School District or Columbia School District, begin by taking a 15-week training course on getting ahead and creating a plan for reaching self-sufficiency (food, childcare and a stipend are provided at the meetings, to make it more accessible for families). Then, each family is paired with allies- upper and middle class families- for an 18-month program, which will hopefully turn into lifelong relationships. The program is already having major success in 24 states.
“We often think that people in poverty, all they need is money to get ahead,” said Reed Reynolds of CAP. But Reed emphasized that these relationships truly make a difference in the success. Families in the program, as well as their allies, are also partnering with community leaders to form a coalition for broader societal changes that will help local families living in poverty- like better transportation, childcare or affordable housing.
After doing this simulation, I wish all the families that are taking this next step in becoming self-sufficient all the good will and good luck I can muster. As Reed reminded me, “you may be working poor, but you still have aspirations and dreams in life.” I think every child in Lancaster County should be able to dream big.
-Diana Martin, Communications Specialist at Lancaster County Community Foundation
*this program is supported with $90,850 from the Long Term Creative Solutions Matching Fund.