Recently, I was part of the group who participated in a poverty simulation, sponsored by Brightpoint and held here at Trinity. Everyone was assigned a character within a family unit—some families were large, some small, some had two parents, some were staying in a homeless shelter---the scenario covered a lot of possibilities.
Throughout the morning, we were directed to different situations ---maybe a parent lost a job or a car broke down. We had to continue with the expectations of living under a roof with enough food and heat, getting kids to school or childcare, and going through all the rigmarole of applying for various benefits and assistance.
Once the simulation was finished, participants were kind of shell-shocked. “I’m exhausted,” some said. “I’m irritated and confused,” said others. “How can they expect me to get to work when I have to get kids to doctors’ appointments and a car to the shop?” said one. One of the social service agency representatives noticed that as the simulation progressed, those of us portraying family members spoke more quickly, behaved more rudely, and became more desperate in our demeanor.
That was just after SIMULATING living in poverty for one morning. We realized a little sliver of the challenge it must be to live this way, day after day, when the weekends fly by so quickly and it’s impossible to get everything done you need to do for your family. The resources you need aren’t even available at the time you could access them. And no matter how much you may want to sit and ‘bond’ as a family, there is absolutely no time to be still and read to children or, in many cases, even to have a meal together. There is simply too much that must be done, must be figured out, in order to keep life moving fairly reliably. A great “unfairness” most of us experienced was the challenge of how expensive it is to be poor. If you received a shut off notice because you hadn’t paid your gas bill, you found that you owed that amount, PLUS re-connection fees and fines---so the money you didn’t have to pay for that heat bill is now increased… which made no sense.
We quickly understood how easy it would be to feel angry and worried and unheard. And for those of us in mock-family scenarios, we saw how much stress and worry the children could see and feel, and how much the adults wanted to keep them from seeing it. The smallest kindness or moment of grace was noticed and welcomed by those of us “in the trenches.”
The Brightpoint leaders were careful not to call this “a game,” ever mindful that life is difficult for many of our neighbors and making it into a “game” demeans and disrespects their experiences. The 45 or so participants that day seemed to leave with new insight, even of just being aware that we are not all living life under the same circumstances. Pastor Erdos, who participated in the simulation, volunteered almost immediately to host another session of the simulation as soon as it is feasible, to allow more people to experience life as many of our neighbors experience it. We learned a lot, but the most meaningful aspect of the day to me was witnessing how participants inhabited the roles they were playing, and assumed families were doing their best and trying hard. We don’t often get the opportunity to live life in someone else’s shoes, but my advice would be to take the chance if you get it. You learn about other people, but you learn more about yourself.