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Poverty simulations play at being poor

To be poor means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Whereas some are perpetually dissatisfied because their car isn’t shiny enough, or they didn’t get to vacation in Italy, I find myself, all these years later, thankful for cupboards full of food, cable television and an abundance of toilet paper.

Having grown up in the Lower Middle Trash tax bracket, I believe I have a pretty good grasp of what true poverty is.

And, for all the negative consequences borne of squalor, it can instill those afflicted with a valuable dose of perspective.

Perspective, I suppose, is what folks are looking for when they participate in poverty simulations like the one held locally last week.

The annual exercise aims to give folks a feeling for what it’s like to be poor.

“The poverty simulation places participants in a simulated ‘month’ of struggle as they role play a member of a family with little or no money,” says Char-Em United Way. “The month is broken up into four 15-minute ‘weeks’ in which participants will need to find work, apply for assistance, feed and care for children, including getting them to school, pay bills, etc.”

Participants, “get a feeling of what it is like to try and juggle the service systems in our community to survive, including mounting stress as the reality of their situation crashes down on them.”

According to Char-Em United Way officials, participants say they felt overwhelmed and stressed at the futility of living with so little.

Exercises like poverty simulations leave me conflicted.

One the one hand, educating people on the challenges of their fellow man is a good thing.

Conversely, I find myself asking what folks really learn from these faux slumming sessions. I mean, if you’re empathetic enough to attend, then you’re probably mentally equipped to understand that being poor sucks.

Really, what are the long-term effects of having attended the summit?

Will attendees be more likely to make charitable donations?

Will they be less likely to speak ill of the shabbily clothed and the homeless?

Would driving a Mercedes Benz around for an hour give me any idea of what it’s like to be rich?

The concept of the poverty simulation reminds me of that great Cosby Show episode where Theo wants to move out.

He’s got a little money and decides he’s ready to strike out on his own.

So, his dad Cliff (Bill Cosby) sets up the house like an apartment building and portrays a building superintendent named Harley Weewax.

He hands Theo some Monopoly money and tells him to try living on it.

Cliff charges Theo for everything, from rent for his room and furniture, to a bologna sandwich.

Theo quickly realizes and then concedes he is not ready for the real world.

The wife and I did something similar to our son when he, too, at the ripe old age of 16, decided he was a man.

We didn’t have to play any parts.

We simply showed him a reasonable budget for a single person’s living expenses, and, once the shock of reality wore off, the issue dissolved rather quickly.

Of course, you can tell someone how bad something is but there are a great many things a simulation cannot teach about the desperation, fear, and hopelessness of poverty.

An hour isn’t long enough to feel the hot and cold sweats you get as a kid when the cashier gives you dirty looks, and the person behind you calls you names for using food stamps to buy bread and eggs for your family.

You won’t know the frustration of driving your deathtrap of a car to your $4.25-an-hour job and getting a $150 ticket for the loud muffler you’d love to get fixed if only you had the money … but you’ll never have the money.

And that cop’s duty to uphold the law, passed by some well-meaning legislator, who has probably never missed a meal, just took food out of your kids’ mouths, and electricity out of the house, and clothes off your backs, and heat out of the furnace.

So, you lay in the frozen dirt after work with no coat on because you cannot afford one.

And you wrap an old soup can and tinfoil around the hole in the pipe and you tie it in place with coat hangers and hope it’s quiet enough to avoid another ticket.

You won’t learn what it’s like to have stomach aches and diarrhea every day before school because you’re going to be bullied mercilessly for your stained and tattered clothing, and because you live in a slum, and you have nothing to eat at lunchtime.

You won’t know how much your feet hurt when plastic bread sacks and one pair of holey socks inside sneakers is what you call “winter boots.”

You don’t even have the energy to feel bad that you can’t play football or go to a school dance or on a field trip because you can’t afford to. It’s not even an option so you have no feelings about it at all except that you’re some kind of alien who doesn’t do the things that normal “rich” people do.

You won’t know what it’s like to listen to your mom cry because she had to send you to bed without dinner because there’s just no food and there’s just no money.

You miss out on learning all sorts of nifty tricks like heating the house with your electric oven because the gas got shut off, or that you can put a pin in some water meters to keep the little needle from going around and jacking up the bill, or that old T-shirts make better toilet paper than newsprint does.

You learn to hand-wash laundry in the sink or bathtub and dry it over the furniture the night before school because a washer and dryer are luxuries.

It also means waiting until you’re almost dead to go to the hospital because you’re too proud to pile up bills you cannot pay. And then never paying those bills and ruining the credit you’ll never have because nobody is going to give you a credit card or loan.

It means keeping the thermostat so low in winter you can see your breath.

You become a world-class juggler when you’re poor, sifting through piles of shut-off notices and nearly shut-off notices to see which ones you can throw money at next month and which ones you can lie to about having sent the payment, and which ones can just be shut off for a while.

And when your kid’s school sends home paperwork for some $10 project or $20 field trip, you will waste an entire anxiety-filled evening arguing with your spouse because one of you thinks it’s very important and the other knows you can’t pull cash from thin air.

The entire situation is hand-to-mouth.

But, it’s worse than hand-to-mouth.

It’s flinging tablespoons of water at a fire-breathing dragon that doesn’t care if your kids go hungry or your wife has cancer or your untreated back hurts so much you have to go to the bathroom and cry on your non-existent lunch break just to get through the day.

You have to understand that taking time off, no matter how sick you are, is not an option.

It means getting ripped off by rent-to-own stores and shady car lots who might charge many times the normal cost of a couch or bed or refrigerator or loan interest because they know you got nowhere else to go.

And you couldn’t afford a lawyer to sue them.

It means getting screwed out of hundreds of dollars each year by your bank because a check you wrote two weeks ago overdrew your account by $1.50 for two days, and they calculate overdraft fees on every single payment you made since that check. Sometimes the fees are as much as $35 per overdraft per day.

Being poor means being talked down to by folks who think designer clothes and expensive hairdos equal intelligence and trustworthiness; and that, if you work on cars or tend a cash register or wait tables or mow lawns for a living, you must be stupid.

With that comes an awful lot of comfortable folks who believe in their hearts that all poor folks are either simply lazy or, as one extremely religious and extremely wealthy man once told me, the rich have, in God’s eye, done something to deserve their station in life … and so, he said, have the poor.

There is no retirement plan when you’re poor.

Most poor folks work until the day they drop dead or become too ill to get out of bed.

And none of this takes into account child support payments, late fees on everything all the time, finding a babysitter you can afford, recurring fees like insurance and registration costs, and the fact that the price for a gallon of gas can determine whether you’re going to have groceries that week.

It means looking at pop bottles and loose change as a savings account and emergency fund.

Then there is the constant worry that the next medical emergency, broken down car (assuming you have a car and are not at the mercy of rides from relatives, friends and public transport), defective appliance or other unforeseen event might be the one which makes you homeless, again, or close to it.

You might get lucky and spend a year living with your seven-person family in the living room of your step-grandma’s trailer, or you might spend the summer living in a tent at the state park, or living out of rat-bedbug-cockroach-junkie-prostitute-infested motel rooms in what is not even the worst section of town.

Everyone around you is just as poor and hopeless as you are. This only reinforces the pall of futility because it’s hard to think of tomorrow when today is spent keeping a rabid dog at bay with a stick.

Like I said, I don’t know how much any of us can learn about each other in a poverty simulation or even an opinion column.

But, I suppose, it’s a step in the right direction.

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