The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

April 7, 2013

Playing poor isn’t all that much fun

Workshop offers a taste of poverty

By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer

SHARON — “Living in the tyranny of the moment.” That was the lesson that some 120 Penn State Shenango students learned while acting out roles portraying the daily struggles of low-income families at a Poverty Simulation workshop.

Co-sponsored by the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County and the Community Action Partnership of Mercer County, the Thursday afternoon simulation broke the students up into “families” and each was given a specific scenario and the routine – but often impossible – task of paying bills with not enough money, looking for work with no success and the occasional turning to crime to make ends meet, only to end up “in jail.”

Each “week” was a 15-minute segment where the adults in the family had to go to work, take children to school and deal with sudden “surprises,” such as having to pick a sick child up from school and losing a job because of it, or returning back to their “home” to find it robbed and all their money and possessions gone.

Other groups who didn’t have enough cash to make the mortgage payment, or put off paying it, returned “home” to find their chairs turned over and told they were evicted and homeless.

At first, the students made a game of it, casually going to the perimeter of the room, where the unemployment office, utility companies, schools, welfare office, pawn shop, cash advance shop and health services “buildings” were located. Staffing those “offices” were county residents who are living that low-income tyranny, said Ron Errett, CEO of the Community Action Agency.

“And they were told, as best they could, to treat those who came seeking services the way they often are treated, with disrespect and hostility,” he said.

There are 46 million people nationally living below the poverty level and about 5,000 Mercer County residents either at or just slightly above poverty level, Errett said.

He provided data from a survey that showed how much money a family would need to just make ends meet without any government support. For a family of four, they would need $52,284.

“You divide that by 2,080 hours in the work year and see what you need to make. Then you tell me where those $25 an hour jobs are, because they sure aren’t here.”

By the time the third and fourth segments began, students began sprinting to where they needed to be, having learned that the agencies will close, even if they are waited in line, money will run out and jobs will be gone, unless they are first in line. The noise level rose as the “families” shouted at one another over mistakes that cost money and time. People robbed the “quick cash” office and sold drugs to make money to pay the mortgage, while others stole food and bus passes, in the scenario.

So intense was the frustration by the end of the event, the school had Tony Paglia, campus counselor, on hand to help students understand what they had gone through.

Directed by Summer Knapp, a Penn State senior who did the simulation as her senior project, said she wanted the students, who will someday go on to work in career fields where they may be dealing with poverty issues, to have empathy for those who are poor.

“I wanted them to be surprised by the things they themselves would do to get by, like stealing or selling drugs. I don’t want them to have a bias when people come to them for help,” she said.

Knapp, of Sharpsville, said she well understands that people can be working as hard as they can and yet not be able to make ends meet. She and her husband, with six children between them, each worked two jobs  and couldn’t make enough to get by without government assistance.

“We had to get food stamps. And I got the looks at the grocery store. You know, where people are looking at you and saying ‘Really? You’re getting two buggies of food on food stamps?’ Well, sometimes, that wasn’t even enough to feed a family of six for two weeks,” she said.

At a debriefing session at the end, students offered up their perspective on trying live at poverty level while working, caring for children and maintaining a home.

“I was scared. My kids weren’t eating. One got expelled from school. I was beating my kid I was so stressed out,” one woman said.

“The grocery store wouldn’t take my vouchers. They said they didn’t have a pen to sign my stuff. I got so mad,” another woman said.

“I ended up in jail because I stole a parking pass,” said one, and another, “I bought crack to turn a profit so I could make my mortgage.”

Moderating after the event, Errett, who has been dealing with families facing these issues for more than 40 years, said “This is what is out there. It is what happens. You know the difference between poor people and rich people? Rich people have more money.”

“We have to stop referring to poor people as ‘them’ or the ‘takers vs. the makers,’ ‘welfare queens,’ etc. Many, many people are one paycheck away from living in poverty. And the worst thing anyone can do is take away their dignity. You don’t know the story behind those food stamps or government assistance. Don’t judge,” Errett said.

“The tyranny of the moment. That is what poor people live every single day. Yes, they would like to plan ahead, but today, they have to deal with paying that utility before it gets shut off. Today, they have deal with childcare for a sick kid. Today they have to deal with getting evicted. And it goes on like that, from one crisis to the next,” he said.

A second poverty simulation is scheduled for the fall, as part of the Community Food Warehouse’s yearlong celebration of its 30th anniversary.