I was a 19-year-old mom with a 1-year-old named Harvey. I had dropped out of high school and had broken up with the baby’s father. We were not receiving child support and living at a homeless shelter with my new boyfriend who is 25 and has a FT job. I needed to find a job and we needed to find a place to live within two weeks. We had a certain amount of money, food stamps, a few bus passes and a lot of determination.
This was the role I was given to play at the recent Poverty Simulation that 13 of us from Prince of Peace recently attended. We spent a Saturday morning in the high school cafeteria immersing ourselves in what it means to live in poverty, along with 70 others from our community.
The scenario we were experiencing included four weeks. I discovered pretty quickly that I didn’t have enough to pay for food and diapers for a whole month and that daycare cost more than I could make working full time at minimum wage. Fortunately, a faith-related organization was super helpful – referring us to free child care through Headstart, providing an extra food voucher and ideas on looking for housing. We found a place to live that cost less than we thought it would, but then the daycare was closed for the week because of an outbreak of something. So I couldn’t get a job that week. The next week we took the bus to daycare – two bus passes to get there and dropped Harvey off. He seemed to be thriving! I got to the employment office,e but the person ahead of me got the last job. They said come back next week and be the first in line. I tried but with daycare I couldn’t get there that early – and I was running out of bus passes. And even though I had the money to buy food at the Food-O-Rama, with a toddler in tow and taking the bus, I could not carry very much.
Things were going pretty well but the utility office was never open. I’d been there four times. So we were going have the utilities shut off and potentially lose the apartment. And then I made a bad choice – I couldn’t afford two bus passes every time I had to go somewhere. I only left the child home alone for a little while…but he got taken away by Child Protective Services.
Jesus says to us…
Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” –Matthew 25:35-36, 45.
And the people say, “When did we see you hungry and feed you or naked and clothe you?” –Matthew 25:37-39. They were surprised to learn that caring for the neighbor – or not caring for the neighbor – was doing this to Jesus!
As we debriefed our experience in the simulation, we were asked to name a word indicating how we felt at that moment. “Frustrated…stressed…hopeless…angry….I could never get a break.”
Others in our group had experiences not too different from mine. One person was a single dad raising two kids. He said that “I was set up to succeed. I had a job, a car, a place to live, the kids were in school. We had what we needed. And yet, if one thing went wrong, we were about 15 minutes from everything falling apart. The money stuff was so stressful!”
We had grandparents raising their grandchildren. Older people were lonely and had mobility issues. Kids in school who didn’t know where they’d be living at the end of the school day; unable to afford the field trip and school activities like other kids. And teenagers who went to the food shelf for their parent – because they had the time – who were told sorry, we can’t help you because you aren’t 18.
It was infuriating!
Life on the Margins
The scenario gave us a very real picture of life on the margins – almost too real. Someone said to me, “Are you glad you came?” I really couldn’t answer that question. It was all too complex. I was glad we’d had this experience. It was eye opening. But it was so incredibly raw.
Knowing you didn’t have the money or the time or the transportation to get the things you needed for the week. A child dependent on you. And limited prospects for the future. Trying to stretch your limited money. Wishing the kid was old enough for school because at least that is free and they get to eat. Wondering if working even made sense with the cost of daycare.
In our debriefing, they said that there were some variables that were not introduced into the role playing – no one had language barriers trying to navigate the system. There was not immigration status to worry about. We didn’t know anyone’s race or sexual orientation so that kind of discrimination was not part of what we had to navigate.
I was glad that we’d had the opportunity and our group ranged in age from 10 to 85. We learned that poverty can be generational – with coping strategies passed down from grandparents to parents to their kids. And it can be situational – a job loss, a steep rent increase meaning you are suddenly homeless.
There were city and county staff there, school board members and legislators. People from churches and interested people from the community. Giving up half a Saturday to absorb what is this really like. And wondering what can we do? Are we doing the right things? Are we doing enough?
Thank you to Do Good Roseville for sponsoring the event, that allowed us to experience many of the conditions described so vividly in the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.