A taste of poverty

Boulder County Circles logo. (BCC Facebook page)

Last night, I participated in a “Poverty Simulation” exercise organized by Boulder County Circles. I’d say their were about 50 participants and staff crammed into a seminar room at the Longmont (Colo.) YMCA.

When I showed up, I got grouped in a family with three nice ladies I had never met before. I would share their real names here but I forgot to ask their permission! Anyway, I was the 36-year-old dad Miles and they were my three children, ages 13, 8 and 3. We got a packet of information and IDs for our “family,” a summary of our meager resources and a very brief orientation of the different tables set up around the room, representing work, a bank, a school, a grocery store, a mortgage company, the police department, a pawn shop, social services, etc.

Every 15 minutes of the hour-long exercise equaled a week. When the whistle for the week blew, I had to drop off my three year old at day care, see my two older kids to school and get to my full-time job as a certified nurse’s assistant on time. When I finished working I had to get to the bank, then get back to day care to pick up my three year old, then get back home, all before the whistle blew.

The first week, I couldn’t work because the day care wouldn’t accept my application and my child on the same day. Because it took so long at the bank, I didn’t have time to get groceries, so we didn’t eat for the first week. The second week I got groceries for two weeks, but we were late on our mortgage payments. When I went to the mortgage company they were closed. My second kid got expelled from school for bad behavior. When I found two cards representing a washer and refrigerator that somebody dropped, I pocketed them, hoping I could pawn them. I got ripped off by payday loans and the pawn shop. A lady tried to sell me drugs and another lady tried to get me to illegally cash a check for her. During the fourth week, we got evicted from our house for non-payment of our mortgage. I was reporting our unjust eviction by the mortgage company to the “police” when the exercise ended.

There was a lot of incredulous laughing and commotion during the simulation, so I’m sure it was more “fun” than it would have been if we had experienced all those things in real life. But even so it was frustrating and disorienting and tiring. So much waiting in line, so little time to do things that my family needed just to survive. It felt like I didn’t have time to be nice. A bunch of other people were waiting in line at just about every stop, so it was every man for himself.

I didn’t like the very tiny taste I got of what it might be like to live in financial poverty, as you might imagine. Basically, it sucked. Being so busy just trying to survive and constantly living in crisis mode made it hard to notice when announcements were made about the availability of assistance programs. Now I understand a little better why people I try to help, who are in real situations similar to what I experienced during the exercise, don’t always respond to my offers of help like I think they should.

I did like the Circles folks who hosted the simulation, and I did like what I heard from them about their efforts to work toward ending poverty in Boulder County. I wonder if a similar sort of program would be helpful for Broomfield County, where my family and I live.

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