Friday, April 27, 2007

Poverty simulation at the Pittsburgh Mills

Entry sign to the Poverty SimulationThere were about 42 participants in today's Poverty Simulation in the Galleria at the Pittsburgh Mills. The event was hosted by the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches at the Radiant Life Christian Community, a United Methodist Church that will be meeting in space at the Galleria. In addition to the participants there were approximately 15 volunteers who helped present the simulation. The event was provided by Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners.

I attended the simulation as one of the participants, and was assigned the role of a 15-year old teenage girl who hung out with a bad crowd at school. My "mother", my 14-year old "brother" and I had just been abandoned by my father, who was nowhere to be seen. We had a few things in the house, $10, a bus pass for a single trip on the bus, monthly obligations that would cost more than $650, and no income. My "mother" was unemployed and had not had a paying job since getting married. In order for us to survive the month my "mother" was going to have to keep all the bills paid, keep us fed, and not get evicted. One of her first tasks was to apply for food stamps, and the single bus trip was the only way she could get there.

As our household looked at what we had to do before the simulation began, it seemed to me that the cards were really stacked against us, and as we played out a four-week month that proved to be true. Our "mother" spent so much time successfully getting food stamps that we still ended up without food in the house, and were experiencing serious malnutrition.

At the end of the second week, I came home from school with a note that I was expelled for the remainder of the simulation. No explanation for the expulsion was given other than that I had gotten into too much trouble at school. I knew so little about why I was expelled that all I could tell "mother" was that the other kids were the troublemakers. There was so little food in the house that my expulsion had me wondering what I was going to eat if I was not going to have access to lunches at school.

I talked my "mother" into giving me a precious bus pass so that I could go try to get a job since I was not going to be in school. After I used up the pass, I learned that I was too young to have any kind of job. And my "little brother" had been handed an eviction notice from the landlord that he was to give to "mother" when she got home.

"Mother" kept telling us that she was buying food and taking care of the bills, but it seemed that although she may have been talking to the realty company and making partial payments, the eviction process was already in motion and would roll ahead no matter what. She pawned almost everything of value that we had left just in order to pay bills.

When "mother" went to try to get me back into school, we learned for the first time that there was evidence that I had been selling drugs, and that we needed to see the police to get that resolved.

During the last week of the simulation we were evicted. I was resourceful enough to notice that there was a one-room "dwelling" nearby that had been vacant since the simulation began. While our "mother" was out fighting her losing battle to provide for the family, and my brother was at school, I moved myself into the vacant unit without permission. I probably would not have been able to stay long once the police or the realty company noticed where I was.

This was a good learning experience that helped me see how drastically poverty can affect a family system. "Mother" had to solve so many problems at once that she did not even keep the children informed about how bad the situation was. It created the impression for the children that she was not being honest with us about what she was doing to keep us safe.

When the simulation was over we all spent some time debriefing what we had experienced. People who had roles in families with different situations all had something to share about the feelings that we had as we struggled just to make it to the end of the month.

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