Scratching the Surface on Poverty

Did you know that 46 million Americans are affected by poverty? Or that more than 22% of those living in poverty are under the age of 18? That means 1 in 5 children are currently living in poverty in America.

It’s one thing to read the words on a page, and quite another to experience it (or actually live it). Recently, I got a small glimpse through a poverty simulation training. I played the role of the County Human Services office, providing food stamps, cash assistance, Medicaid, and child subsidies. Around the room were other stations to represent the community: school, homeless shelter, bank, grocery store, police and jail, faith center, pawn shop, community services and medical clinic. The participants were given information and assumed the roles of that particular family.

These were real stories from families in our community.

For one hour, we acted out 4, 15-minute “weeks.” I was prepared for a meaningful experience, but not the emotional impact. By the second week, one woman broke down in tears trying to get food stamps at my station. Her low paying job made her ineligible for food stamps and other benefits, but she earned too little to cover her rent, groceries, and health care bills. The simulation brought her back to her own experience in poverty, and she could not hold back the emotion. Witnessing her struggle reminded me that this is a reality for millions of people every single day. I felt useless, sitting across the table from her in a position of power and still unable to lessen her burden. Another participant shared that her children were struggling in school and refused to go, making her late for work. She ended up in court for truancy and lost her job.

As the “weeks” passed, I could feel my own anxiety level rising. More people showed up stressed, frustrated, and in desperate need. They were doing the best they could and were just trying to follow the rules. In many cases, they were sent to multiple agencies only to be told they couldn’t be helped and would have to go back to the same place they just came from. By the end of one hour, most people said they had lost hope and wanted to give up because the process took too long, or they were tempted to consider criminal activity to get what they needed. Others talked about how they looked for ways to work the system to avoid the hassle.

In one short hour, we just barely scratched the surface of a broken system, disenfranchisement, and discrimination. Add on to any of this an addiction or mental or physical health issues, and the problems increase exponentially. We didn’t address the fact that these families did not have enough money to buy fresh, healthy food to feed their families. That they could never hope to take a day off of work, put any money away to save, or plan for the future. No one was talking about reading to his or her kids or taking them to the park.

They were just trying to survive the week ahead.

The impacts of poverty and hunger are immense. Increased emotional and financial stress, increased risk of mental and physical health concerns, lower educational and job attainment and performance are just a few. The benefits cliff and systemic issues like generational poverty, addiction, and discrimination, also keep people stuck in the cycle and prevent self-sufficiency. It is a perpetual struggle that feels insurmountable and hopeless. It also takes a significant toll on those working at these resource centers, who are often underpaid and overworked.

After we left, I couldn't stop thinking that these participants were treated with dignity and kindness. They were given the benefit of the doubt that they were deserving, doing the best they could with what they had. I had a sinking feeling that perhaps the same respect is not offered to those who are actually living in poverty. Instead, we often make assumptions about their lives and place blame on them for their choices. It is easier to justify looking away when we’ve stood at an arm's length and diagnosed the problem.

For those of us to claim to value life and believe that every human being has worth, it is shameful that we are debating corporate tax cuts and funding cuts to education, mental health services, and other programs that enrich communities and help to level the playing field. Simplistic solutions like “just get a job” are senseless and ignorant. What would happen if we suddenly made too little to cover the necessities, but too much for government assistance? Or if being late, needing to stay home with a sick child, or being diagnosed with a serious illness meant almost certain unemployment?

What we fail to recognize is that most us are just one unexpected disaster or illness away from losing everything. Most of us just also happen to benefit from a security network of loved ones to cushion the fall.

One way or another it impacts us all. If we care about how our tax dollars are being spent and the waste in government, then we should advocate to fix these broken systems, address the benefits cliff, and incentivize self-sufficiency to help people get out. If we claim to be pro-life or care about humanity, then we should demand that our politicians redistribute funds to invest in the pillars of a moral society: living wages, public education, healthcare and mental health services.

With all of the problems riddling our world today, it can feel overwhelming and paralyzing. But, we can use our voices and our votes to make change. Ultimately how we respond to this crisis will determine the kind of society we leave for our children. It will be the measure for how much we truly value life and our fellow human beings.

“The over-committed can miss a few deadlines. Dieters can take a break from their diet. The busy can take vacations. One cannot take a vacation from poverty.”

-Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir, 2014

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