Poverty Simulation brings struggles of low-income families into focus

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


Roi Krokower sat at home as he watched his wife go off to work and his two grandchildren, who lived with them, go off to school. Disabled, he was unable to financially contribute to the household and he felt restless in his helplessness.

In reality, Krokower is a college student at Iowa Wesleyan University (IW), but during a Poverty Simulation Friday, April 20, he played the role of a grandfather experiencing poverty. His ?home? was four chairs turned towards each other; his wife?s job was to report to a table at the opposite end of IW?s Social Hall; and his grandchildren?s school were chairs lined up in rows where other Poverty Simulation participants who were designated ?children? joined them.

The Poverty Simulation was sponsored by the Iowa State Extension Office and organized by Next Step Adventure, who provided all the resources for the simulation. The purpose of the simulation was for people?s eyes to be open to a life they might not have and become sensitive to poverty.

The simulation was four 15-minute ?weeks? where people were placed in low-income families surviving from month to month. Participants like Krokower were given roles and instructions on how to act based on their financial situation. Families found themselves struggling to pay rent, buy food, have adequate transportation or even find employment in the first place.

As the simulation got underway, Shelly Johnson with Next Step Adventure reminded participants that poverty is not a game. ?The statistics and situations in this simulation are based on the lives of real people,? Johnson said. ?Walk a mile in the shoes of those who are poor. These are struggling families, but technically speaking they do not fall under the poverty line.?

Families were given a family profile, which included a history of each family member, the setting, income and budget. Families even received social security cards and other identification documents, play money, transportation tickets and a list of family assets and their value.

Community resources were seen around the room such as a Community Action Agency, an employment agency, the supermarket, public school, social services, a healthcare center, mortgage and realty, utility company, a jail and police department, a pawn shop, a bank, a childcare center and an interfaith center.

In the first week, families began to get a feel for their dynamics. Jeremy Scholbrock, who played the role of a 17-year-old high school dropout, sat alone as his parents were busy at work and his sister was at school.

?I wasn?t raised in poverty,? Scholbrock said. ?Makes me rethink?people live this every day. This is culture shock to me.?

At the employment agency in that first week, Missy Park sat behind the desk helping participants find work. This isn?t Park?s first time volunteering with the Poverty Simulation, and she has frequently seen how eye-opening it can be for participants who have never before considered the reality families living in poverty are facing.

In Park?s experience working with families living in poverty has taught her that people want to work, but there is a lack of job training happening from employers.

?I feel that people are trainable, and employers don?t take that time to adequately train them,? Park said, adding that already in the first week of the simulation, families were struggling with enough money for transportation and finding childcare so they could go to work in the first place.

As the first week ended, participants were on the edge of their seat waiting for the go-ahead for the second week. Back in Scholbrock?s family, they were struggling to have enough money for food and utilities at home.

This time, Scholbrock?s ?sister,? played by Kara Roberts, had been sent home from school early for being sick and was waiting out the week with him at home. Roberts had found during the simulation that one of the biggest challenges for families living in poverty was finding adequate transportation.

As an employee at Goodwill, Roberts said she has worked in this field for a long time, but the simulation was giving her a fresh perspective. Although Roberts said that playing the role of a teenager during the simulation was a little easier than being the parent, she could still feel the stress of the situation.

?I won?t be so quick to judge,? Roberts said.

In week three, school was out of session and families scrambled to find childcare. If they couldn?t afford it, one of the parents had to stay home from work, which could cost them their jobs.

Back in Krokower?s family, his ?grandson? Harben Branco said that the simulation was teaching him to be more empathetic as he felt the struggle of living check to check.

As a student in the simulation, Branco was able to ride the school bus for free, but he noticed that transportation was still very difficult for the rest of the family and for other families in the simulation.

As participants worked hard trying to figure out how to pay rent, keep the utilities on and put food on the table, some event volunteers watched the chaos and recalled the challenges they have faced in their struggle with poverty.

Nichole Gonzalez volunteered because she wanted to give the community a chance to look at the ways some people in poverty live. As she ?sold? participants bus passes, she heard them express frustration over how they were going to afford it.

?They don?t know how much they?re going to need, and I know how they feel,? Gonzalez said. ?I?ve been there.?

Cynthia Hallett too watched the simulation as she sat manning the bank booth. ?It?s the least I can do, right?? Hallett said in sharing her experience living in poverty. ?It?s interesting (to watch the simulation) when you know how it feels in real life. Very interesting,? she said.

As week four came and went and the simulation wrapped up, Johnson asked participants to reflect on their experience. The group shared how they wish community resources were more easily accessible and the community came together to help each other.

?It takes one mishap for a family?s situation to downward spiral,? Karen Erickson observed.

?If we as community members were more knowledgeable about resources, there?s no reason why we can?t be connected,? one participant voiced.

?We saw a tiny bit here, and I honestly can?t wrap my head around it,? another concluded.