Post Gazette: “Poverty simulation helps drive home the reality”

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For one intensely compressed month, Christine Smith tried to live as “Robert Rogers” on $1,517 in the frenetic world of Realville. She took on the role to dip into the experience of being poor.

She was standing in line to see the payday lender within the first 15 minutes of a poverty simulation exercise Thursday night at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in East Liberty. The exercise represented four weeks, each one 15 minutes long.

The church co-sponsored the event with Just Harvest, Open Hand Ministries, East Liberty Development Inc., Repair the World and the East End Cooperative Ministry to launch Circles East Liberty. Circles is a program of long-term relationship building between the striving poor (Circles leaders) and better-off cohorts (Circles allies) who want to befriend them and connect them to opportunities.

The program is being incubated by East Liberty Development with plans to become Circles Greater Pittsburgh. It has support from churches, nonprofits and social service agencies and funding from the Heinz Endowments. Training for Circles leaders begins next week. Allies will be trained later in the autumn.

Thursday’s event was staged in part to advance the formation of Circles groupings.

“Hopefully, we will get a lot of allies out of this,” said Kellie Wild, a program director at the East End Cooperative Ministry.

The Missouri Association on Community Action developed the simulation in 2003. It is set up with tables along the walls manned by people playing representatives of a bank, school, day care center, employer, homeless shelter, grocery, rent collector, payday lender, pawn shop, police station, utility company and welfare office.

Participants are assigned household characters in a huddle of chairs. Each gets a packet with a story line, play money, play bus passes, play benefit transfer cards and cards depicting household items that could be pawned.

The family narrative dictates where everyone goes each time the whistle signals another week.

“You can’t leave your chair without a transportation pass except to go to school,” said Rochelle Jackson, a public policy advocate for Just Harvest. “If you don’t have any left, it is up to you to figure something out.”

Ms. Smith said her character, Robert, was divorced and supporting two children and a grandchild on $1,517 a month.

“I had to use five passes to get to work,” she said, after learning that the payday lender would not cash her check because she didn’t have any more passes.

That artificial roadblock acts as a stand-in for real transportation obstacles in the treadmill of dependency. It also provides an opportunity for people who have more than enough passes to sell some for extra cash.

The narratives create an instant energy in each household. Tension builds quickly. People waiting in lines look harried when the whistle signals the end of that week. Faces take on panic, as if those large people really are dependent toddlers. Toned, coiffed women assigned to be tweens move in clouds of giggles and slam chairs to the floor.

Penelope Perez, a 13-year-old played by Nick Cotter, called out to the police officer, “My sister is stealing from people!”

His father was incarcerated and his older brother was recently let out of jail, he said, “but we don’t trust him anymore. My sister has been trouble from the start. So I ratted her out.”

Quianna Wasler as the rent collector paid a home visit to Iris, played by Janet Pollard.

“Your account is in arrears,” she told Iris, who was supporting a 1-year-old son and whose live-in boyfriend hadn’t paid her his portion of the rent. When Iris promised to pay before the end of the month, Ms. Wasler said, “That’s what you told me last month.”

Leo Vollbracht played her 1-year-old son, who was sometimes an after-thought as his mother rushed from one line to another, each time reaching back, remembering him, saying “C’mon, baby.” While he waited for her at the social service agency, he smiled and said, “I have an easy role.”

Brian Cook, as an 8-year-old named Chad, spent most of the simulation in custody.

“Me and my brother were taken to juvenile hall for truancy,” he said. “Then my parents came home and told me we were being taken by child protective services.”

Mr. Cook and a group of friends, all of whom volunteer for Open Hand Ministries renovating houses, “thought this would be a cool thing to do,” he said. “It’s been eye-opening.”

At the end of the session, the households remained for a few minutes in role-playing mode.

To the laughter of relief that the ordeal was over, one participant reported that her family actually ended up better off “because my son was supposed to be a drug addict but, miraculously, he didn’t spend any money on drugs.”

Ted Cmarada said his role as a 17-year-old sounded “sort of fun at first, but as our mom was absorbing what we were going through, I felt myself getting nervous. We had just $10 to start. I ran into the local drug dealer and made my first score. I just wanted to help my mom. By staying in character, I got so worried about my little sister.

“I’m a guy who’s usually really relaxed,” he said, “but in Realville, I was tense. My head was spinning. It was chaos.”

You can read the full article from the Post Gazette here.


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