I was running late for work and my palms were sweating. I had just gotten in an argument with my 16 year old daughter, who is 7 months pregnant, for cutting school again. My husband’s, (who was laid off from his job 6 month’s earlier) unemployment pay had expired and he was denied any more benefits. It was the first of the month and I had a $251 deficit in our budget for the month and I was worried about how we were going to come up with the money to make it another month.
Our 1999 Chevrolet car needed repairs and I had to make a quick decision to risk driving it across town to work or taking the bus, which would make me even more late. We got the kids off to the bus stop (I have 3 school age children) for school and discussed with my husband him either taking the car or the bus to another side of town to apply for food benefits at Job & Family Services. He decided to take the bus so I would not be further late for work and I drove the car to my $9 per hour job. Our net income from my job was our only source of income now and the just over $1,300 per month had us barely scraping by. I prayed that the car would hold out another month because we just didn’t have any money for repairs. My daughter’s prenatal vitamins ran out 2 months ago and we could not afford more so I was worried about the baby’s health. My daughter and her boyfriend decided to keep the baby. I wanted the baby as well and could not even think about what it would do to my family if the baby was placed in adoption. Oh why didn’t she take to heart all our talks with her about abstaining from pre-marital sex or taking precautions! I felt I could not show my face at church any more for fear of being judged. I knew that Jesus wasn’t judging my parenting skills but I could not help worry that some of the women at church were.
After work, I had to go to the bank to cash my paycheck and then go to the grocery store. I was hoping my husband was having success in getting food stamps for us. When I got to the bank, they informed me my loan payment was in arrears and I had to use my last $200 in savings to get caught up. Now where was I going to get the money to pay the utility bill.
When I got home with the groceries, my 2 sons (age 8 and 10) hit me with notes from school – they each needed money for school projects. My husband decided to take a few more household items to the pawn shop, again, even knowing we would be lucky to get 10 cents on the dollar. Why was this happening to us. Just last year we were getting by and even managing to put a bit into savings each month. My husband’s layoff sent us into a financial dive and I felt like we were drowning and would never catch a breath, or a break.
I was already thinking about the 3 weeks ahead, and how we were going to pay rent. We were too close to eviction to even think about. I don’t drink but at that moment I wanted alcohol, badly.
The next 3 weeks were as horrifying as the first and had all taken place in less than half a day. You see, this really was not my life. I experienced all this in a Poverty Simulation that I attended on Saturday. My role was of a 39 year old mother and during the simulation, 4 other participants played roles of the family I described. We were given very detailed instructions and information to play out in our roles. I would have rather gotten the role of the 8 year old boy except I could not imagine that experience and having to tell mommy I was hungry and have to ask why there wasn’t enough food to eat in the house.
I have had what I thought were hard times myself in the past, from illness and surgery, but never have I felt like I did during and after the Poverty Simulation. These situations that the 80+ participants encountered are from real families that live in poverty and are trapped there. Some of them are trapped for their entire lives. Generation after generation of worry, ill-health, depression, family disfunction, mental illness, drug addiction and much worse.
If you don’t live in poverty and you think you can imagine what it’s like, you can’t. Just simulating it for less than 3 hours caused anxiety, frustration and fear in me that was unlike anything I have ever known. If you think people living in poverty are all to blame for their situation, you need to think again.
After my experience, thanks to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank’s marvelous Poverty Simulation program, I truly believe that every politician, social worker, government and agency employee, teacher, student over the age of 16, and every other American that cares about our society and the future of our country should attend a Poverty Simulation if they have not already done so. I thought I knew enough about poverty in our country from my 60-years of life experiences and my new job at Community West Foundation, the sponsor for the event I attended. But I didn’t have a clue.
This simulation helped me understand much more than I ever thought I could in one day. I never want to experience those feelings again and I can’t imagine how people living day to day, year to year in the pressure cooker that poverty feels like, can cope. But they do. It’s real. And it is a national shame. Poverty could happen to me. It could happen to you.
There is a quote from Adlai Stevenson printed on my Poverty Simulation invitation: “Understanding human needs is half the job of meeting them”. Maybe America has not done a very good job of helping our brothers and sisters out of the poverty trap because we don’t really understand it…