Alliance Community Task Force: Creating Opportunity
Last week Earl and I had the honor of participating in a Poverty Simulation, hosted by the Head Start Program of Educational Service Unit #13 (ESU13) and Nebraska Extension. The idea was to create a condensed month-long role-play experience giving a better understanding of the challenges facing households that live in poverty.
Head Start staff and Public School Partnership staff from the western and southern Panhandle (Scottsbluff, Gering, Mitchell, Morrill, Minatare, Bridgeport, Sidney) were placed into family units. They were challenged with navigating daily and weekly tasks. They had to apply for jobs, buy groceries, pay rent, pay utility bills, deal with issues at school, and visit social service agencies to apply for assistance.
Each week was fifteen minutes long. At the start of each week families were reminded by the moderator that they needed to focus on maintaining a place to live, paying utility and other bills, and providing food for their family. Those who had jobs had to get their children to school or child care and get to work on time. When the weekend came, businesses and agencies closed. Families regrouped, checked their finances, and made their plans for the next week.
Some of the families owned cars. Some had a car, but had to make loan payments to the bank. Many had to purchase transportation passes and use one every time they visited a business or agency.
Random events might challenge the family. An accident or illness might send them to the hospital. A wage earner might get fired. A thief might break into their house and steal furniture or an appliance. A child might get expelled from school. Some families left their children unattended at home because they couldn’t afford the child care. Social services or the police might investigate them for child neglect. And the local drug dealer kept coming by to offer them an easy way to earn some extra cash.
The businesses and agencies were located at tables around the room. They were staffed by representatives of Scottsbluff and Gering agencies and by ESU 13 staff and board members. (I am on the ESU #13 Board of Education.) One of the agencies was staffed by a woman who spoke only Spanish, so the participants realized the barriers faced by not being fluent in the language.
I was the mortgage and rent collector. A few of the families were homeless, living in a shelter provided by a religious organization. The others were evenly divided between those who had mortgage payments and those who owed rent. I went around the second week to notify those families whose payments were past due (which was everyone). The last week I evicted everyone who still hadn’t paid me. That meant I turned over their chairs while they were out of their home, and I took all their possessions back to my office. They could have reported me to the
police, as I had no court orders for eviction and was therefore stealing their property, but no one did.
Earl was the utility and phone bill collector. As with my job, he collected money, sent out warnings, and shut off power. (I’m not sure why we got to be the bad guys everyone owed money to… At least we weren’t the drug dealer.)
How did people get the money they needed to survive? They worked, sometimes more than one job, and they had to pay a fee to the bank or Quik Cash to cash their checks. But sometimes they didn’t have jobs, or they didn’t earn enough to cover their expenses. They applied for assistance like housing vouchers or EBT/food stamps, but that might mean missing work or wasting precious time to stand in line at various offices. They took out loans from the bank or the payday lender. They sold items at the pawn shop. They went without food. And sometimes they still couldn’t make it.
The Poverty Simulation was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved. It was designed to increase our understanding about the problems faced by low-income households. Participants, whether they be families in poverty or agencies or businesses, learned about struggles faced by so many in our area.