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Caregivers Help Communities Understand the Hardships of Poverty

Some caregivers have a creative way of fostering a realistic understanding of poverty.

“Roberta” is a 21-year-old junior at a local college maintaining a 3.8 grade point average. She also works a full-time night job that pays $9.50 an hour. Combined with her student loans, it’s about enough money to survive. What keeps Roberta afloat is hope – the hope that opportunities, opportunities for a real career and a middle-class wage, will open up once she finally has her degree in hand. Then she can pass by surviving and advance straight to living, if only she can complete that degree.

But completing her degree is not in the cards for Roberta. Not for right now, anyway. Roberta needs to pack up and move home to care for her disabled mother, who has just become bedridden.

That hope that Roberta clung to that helped her get through sleepless nights cramming for tests, writing papers and scraping cab fare together, that hope has sunk. Roberta has accepted poverty as her way of life, as her new vision for the future. And she is not alone.

More than one in six Floridians are living in poverty — the highest the state poverty rate has been in more than a decade, according to census figures recently released.

Sixteen percent of Floridians were below the poverty level in 2010, up from 14.6 percent in 2009, reflecting a continuation of a steady climb in recent years. Florida’s 2010 rate is the highest it has been since 1995, when it was 16.2 percent. The census data reflect the first full calendar year after the recession of December 2007 to June 2009. (Poverty rates published for local counties in 2009 included: Pinellas County, 13.3 percentHillsborough County, 15.2 percentPasco County, 13.2 percentManatee County, 14.4. percentSarasota County, 12.7 percent.)

As for today, October 2011, anecdotal evidence from local social service providers and unemployment statistics paints a picture that is increasingly bleak. This portrait has poverty levels rising even more day by day in response to our country’s current economic recession.

Understanding Leads to Solutions

JWB Children’s Services Council of Pinellas County (JWB) recently partnered with Angelica Norton, founder and CEO of Seed Sowing Sister to create an innovative curriculum, The Poverty Experience. I had the opportunity to participate in The Poverty Experience a few months ago at The Hispanic Leadership Council’s annual conference, and the experience was profound.

The Poverty Experience is a simulation that lasts one hour — 15 minutes equals a day, and families are formed among groups of one to five strangers randomly assigned individual scenarios including age, income and needs of specific family members, rent payments and medical expenses.

Initially, participants are calm, exploring the long lines, politely smiling at one another, moving from station to station to buy food, pay rent, get food stamps, pawn belongings, get to doctor’s offices and buy bus passes.  

That’s only for the first 15 minutes. After that, the simulation begins to hit home. People begin to realize they can’t make it. They have not had time and/or money to buy food. They keep getting sent to the back of long lines. They run out of money for transportation. Children wander off in the crowd, and the police remove the children from the families, charging them with abandonment and neglect. People get evicted from their homes because their rent is past due.

The behavior of the crowd changes. They rush from line to line and get annoyed when another person gets a job and they get turned down. Jealousy sinks in. Actual frustration and a sense of urgency take over, and the lightbulb goes off — this is how many of our neighbors live every day.

Core Hardships of Poverty

Five core problems arise when individuals are struggling in poverty. These include:

  1. Affordable housing
  2. Adequate food
  3. Transportation
  4. Affordable child care
  5. Access to communication: phones, addresses, email, Internet, etc.

Without these needs being met consistently, poverty can turn quickly into a downward spiral of progressive illnesses, homelessness and legal issues, including the potential of losing custody of children due to inadequate child care. I have included a video with this article (see above). Benjamin Kirby, communications director of JWB, interviews Jane Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center, and they discuss many of these issues along with some real solutions.

What Participants Have to Say

I recently interviewed Shelba Waldron, training manager of JWB, about The Poverty Experience. Waldron explained that the overall goals of the project are very simple: empathy and understanding.

“Too many people make judgment calls regarding the poor and their needs without understanding how quickly a person with limited resources can have their lives spiral out of control,” Waldron said. “The simulation is meant to make a [participant] feel uncomfortable. It’s intended to put a person in a place of confusion and chaos. It’s also intended to show how cold and callous we can be sometimes to those reaching out for help.”

When I asked Waldron about feedback she has received from the simulation so far, her stories are quite revealing. “I have heard people talk more about specific issues they didn’t have full awareness of, such as the licensed child care issue,” Waldron said.

Many participants were not aware of the expense of child care, which leaves those in poverty to use neighbors, friends and family members to watch their children, and sometimes those people are not appropriate. Waldron explains, “I spoke with a woman who had left her child with a friend so she could go to a job interview. On her way to the interview, the friend was arrested for drug possession, and the woman was in turn arrested for neglect. Her life spiraled downward quickly by just trying to get a job.”

History of The Poverty Experience

The Poverty Experience started in Indiana for St. Anthony’s Hospital’s employees. Ultimately, they gave permission for JWB to use and alter it to fit local needs.

JWB funded the initial project, which was contracting with Angelica Norton of Seed Sowing Sister in Hillsborough County to create the simulation. Waldron explains that working with Norton on The Poverty Experience in the past year has been one of the most profound experiences of her life. “Angelica has really helped me understand what the face of poverty looks like and has made sure, through it all, we kept it human," she said.

Waldron explained that during the development of the curriculum she was profoundly affected by the research. She read stories, watched videos and movies, and interviewed many people to capture a realistic picture of poverty and its complexities.

“I could feel the poverty experience personally over time and came to realize how close many of us are to losing everything we have and turning the tables on our lives," Waldron said. “We have children living in motels, shelters, and families that are split apart to survive, and I don’t think many people truly understand the impact those situations are having on the children. It’s heartbreaking.”

Bring the Experience to Your Group

The Poverty Experience simulation is available to groups in the Tampa Bay area and throughout the nation. The simulation is designed to help deepen understanding and compassion, which often sparks solution-building.

To bring the simulation to your group, contact Angelica Norton, executive director of Seed Sowing Sister, at seedsowingsister@gmail.com; or Shelba Waldron, training manager of JWB Children’s Services Council of Pinellas County, at swaldron@jwbpinellas.org.

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