Last night I had the pleasure of participating in a poverty simulation with Williams College students enrolled in a poverty policy tutorial taught by professor (and fellow pre-k parent) Lara Shore-Sheppard. The simulation was facilitated by Paula Consolini of the Experiential Education program, using the Community Action Poverty Simulation from the Missouri Association for Community Action.
The premise is that participants take on the role of a member of a family in poverty and have to play out that role during four 15-minute sessions that each represents a week in the family’s life. Each family has different resources available and different crises to face, and in the course of those four weeks each family has to try to figure out how to pay bills, keep (or find) a job, care for children, etc. The amount of time alloted is obviously not enough to think deeply about strategies to get ahead; one of the main goals of the simulation is just to give participants a sense of the stress that can result when financial challenges pile on and there’s not enough time in the day (and perhaps not enough reliable information at hand) to make perfect decisions and keep ahead of mounting adversity.
I played multiple roles: the landlord, the mortgage lender, and the utility company. I tried to remind each family of its obligations early and often. I made my displeasure known to families that were falling behind. And I punished a few that kept lousy records and neglected my appeals for payment, while trying to work with others who couldn’t make a full payment but were diligent about at least paying something.
The simulation did its job well, generating a lot of interesting discussion about the challenges of living in poverty. Several of the other non-student role-players had very relevant backgrounds to bring to the exercise: the actual program manager from our local Berkshire Community Action Council played her regular role handing out fuel and rent assistance; likewise for the manager of the local office of the Department of Transitional Assistance.
A couple of points came through strongly:
1. Families with young children faced major difficulties managing childcare, and often resorted to the use of older siblings as babysitters without giving much thought to whether that was best for all the children. Financial and time constraints gave them no choice.
2. The community action agency forestalled one emergency after another. Granted, this simulation was a product of the community action field, so one could cynically argue that it was designed to make the average community action agency look more important than it really is. But if you think of the simulation’s community action office as a stand-in for all the various human service safety net resources that may be available in a low-income community, you do get a strong sense of how important those services can be in the life of a poor family.
3. In my role, I was interested to see that all the families managed to pay their utilities by the end of the month, but many rent and mortgage payments were not made in full or at all. As is often the case in real life, the families tackled the smaller bills earlier because they had the means and wanted to check some things off the to-do list, but they put off paying the big housing expense until the end of the month to make sure they’d be able to put food on the table each week; in a number of cases, that housing money never materialized, so although they survived the month and kept everyone fed, their prospects for future months (with secure shelter) were not bright.
If anything, I have a bit more respect for folks who are in the business of providing non-exploitive rental housing and mortgages to families in poverty, because you could see how often the numbers just don’t add up.