Simulation gives a hint at the woes of poverty
On Friday morning I pretended to be a 14-year-old girl whose father recently disappeared, leaving her frazzled mother with just $10.
According to my information packet, the 14-year-old girl was “poorly motivated in school,” though she did enjoy watching young children — a detail that made me wonder whether I was destined to become a teen mother. Her 17-year-old brother had dropped out of school, fallen in with a bad crowd and had recently impregnated one of her high school classmates.
Because I had been instructed to stay in character, I tried to imagine how an impoverished teenager with little supervision would spend her time after class was dismissed. Mostly I wandered around, feeling bored and useless, and hung out at home. One day I returned home to find that we had been evicted.
“Looks like we’re going to the homeless shelter,” said the Albany woman pretending to be my mother.
We were both participating in the Schenectady Poverty Simulation, in which participants role-play the lives of low-income families to gain a better sense of what it’s like to be poor. Our characters were based on real people and their precarious situations.
The event, which took place in a large gymnasium, was sponsored by Ellis Medicine, the Schenectady Community Action Program, Schenectady Bridges and the Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady.
Participants were divided into families and given a plastic bag containing fake money, identification and pictures of household appliances, along with their value. The room was ringed by tables staffed by businesses and service providers: the utility company, a pawn shop, a generic employer, a homeless agency.
Can an hour-long simulation teach everything there is to know about what it’s like to live in poverty?
No, of course not.
But it can provide a useful primer.
For one thing, I had never given a huge amount of thought to how impoverished teenagers spend their downtime. Sure, I’ve written stories about the need for job programs and after-school activities, and I tend to be of the opinion that kids who lack supervision and structure are likely to end up in trouble.
But this is not the same as considering the actual day-to-day life of a 14-year-old girl.
I went off to school — metal benches in the corner of the gymnasium — but because I was poorly motivated, I decided not to do anything. I scribbled answers on one of the quizzes I was handed, but didn’t bother to complete the second quiz, opting to observe the other participants. Many of them were causing trouble — stamping their feet, asking when they could go home and tearing up their papers.
The big excitement came when the woman playing my brother’s girlfriend approached me demanding to know where he was.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday.”
“Tell him I’m looking for him and that I’m pregnant with his baby.”
“If I see him, I will.”
After school, I wandered around by myself, feeling listless and bored. My family needed help, and occasionally I spotted my mother waiting in line for benefits or food. But what could I, a 14-year-old girl, do to help? Very little, from what I could tell. I felt passive and bored — and also like a bit of a burden.
Discussions of poverty often focus on whether the poor are responsible for their fate and should lift themselves up by their bootstraps, or whether a combination of a more robust safety net, job training and education can give people the tools they need to provide for their families. But the simulation was designed to make it almost impossible to think about poverty this way. Instead, it required participants to focus on meeting basic needs — obtaining food, keeping a roof overhead, getting from point A to point B and back again — and staving off disaster.
The lines participants were forced to wait in were often long and slow, and the employees and service providers were often quite rude. There were unnecessary hurdles at every turn. When my mother and I arrived at the homeless shelter, we were informed that we wouldn’t be admitted unless we produced our eviction notice, which we hadn’t thought to bring with us.
By the end of the simulation, people were tense and stressed out and sick of being poor.
Fortunately, our poverty came to an end around lunchtime, when we filled our plates with sandwiches, chips and cookies.
But real poverty seldom comes to such a quick end.
It goes on and on and on.
And if you’re a 14-year-old girl who knows nothing but hardship, you might wonder what you can expect out of life, and whether your circumstances will ever improve.