You’re a father living in a three-bedroom middle-class suburban home with your three kids and wife. You’ve been laid off for four months and unemployment just ran out. You have $125 in savings with $1,100 on the way from your wife’s paycheck.
With mortgage payments, loans, credit card debt and utility bills to pay, you feel stressed, overwhelmed, hungry and cold.
But you’re not even the poorest of the poor, you’re an average family living in poverty.
The Community Progress Council partnered with York College for this year’s poverty simulation held at Santander Stadium in York. York College has facilitated the simulation 12 times since 2008, but this is the first for community members and decision makers to partake in the activity.
“Our goal is to just begin a conversation about poverty and help support folks striving to attain self-sufficiency,” said Robin Rohrbaugh, president and CEO of Community Progress Council.
A character profile was given to each of the roughly 75 people as they walked in. This year, the simulation spanned three weeks, each lasting 17 minutes.
“I would die without TV, I think,” said Amy Holjes from State Rep. Mike Regan’s office, portraying 12-year-old Bart Boling.
“Can we get rid of the furniture and keep the TV? We can sit on the floor,” said Stephanie Voight from WellSpan Health portraying 16-year-old Barbara Boling.
As the families negotiated their way around living in poverty, York College professors observed and took notes of obstacles they encountered. Perri Druen, associate professor of psychology at York College, researched people’s attitudes about poverty before and after the simulation.
Most people think if they’re poor they’re lazy, but when they go through and see how much work and how hard it is, they stop blaming people as much and end up more likely to help poor people, she said.
For the fictional Bolings and many other families, transportation was one of the biggest challenges. While mom, Betty, and the kids were out at work and school, father, Ben, had to go pawn items to try to get money for transportation. The first to go was the TV and the family only received $25 for it.
“I guess that’s lesson No. 1,” said Tina Thompson, practice manager at Family First Health who was the fictional Ben Boling. After negotiating, you don’t always get what you hoped for or need from pawn shops.
While things were seeming to look up for the family, Betty and Ben returned home to find the kids had been evicted and left out in the cold. The mortgage payment was not made.
All three “children” agreed that experiencing the simulation in younger shoes was unique. They felt left behind with all of the worries, unable to really do anything to help. For the 16-year-old, taking care of the younger brothers was necessary and staying away from people trying to steal and sell drugs was difficult. Parents were consumed by bills and taking care of other issues, children were not the main concern.
A few big employers in the area commented during the debrief session that they need to make sure people know the vast number of resources York has to offer. Employers should be able to connect things like transportation to employees who need it. Voight also noted employers need to ask more questions so they are able to learn about these types of situations.
By the numbers
The number of households in York County in 2010 that fell below the poverty line. That’s 1 in 15 households, the U.S. Census Bureau data shows.
The number of households in York County in 2010 that fell below the self-sufficiency standard.
Minimum wage in Pennsylvania since 2009.
The average living wage for one adult in 2012
Here are some of the takeaways from the participants:
Experiencing the issues families face from within the home was a new perspective.
“I think we don’t know the reality of how much people actually make.”
A lot of families come to get the same services all the time and it’s hard to understand why until you sit down and figure it out.
— Melissa Corbin, Hillside Elementary School counselor
Families with a strong bond and good communication were able to fair better than those who weren’t able to work as a team.
— Renee D’Ambrosio from Glatfelter Insurance Agency, portrayed mother Betty Boling
“Without a strong relationship, we wouldn’t have made it.”
Guidance didn’t come from school or child services either. No one asked questions or seemed to care when she told them her situation at home.
— Terry Baldwin of Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s York alumnae chapter, who portrayed 9-year-old Brian Boling
Many “kids” ran around stealing things and getting in to trouble while parents were out figuring out how to pay the bills and feed their family. During the debrief, participants understood that there was no ability to guide the children. Assumptions are often made about parents whose kids roam and get into trouble, but now maybe people understand why.
— Perri Druen, associate professor of psychology at York County, who researched participants’ attitudes
Participants should fight for lower class sizes because it’s impossible to build relationships when there are so many kids. It’s overwhelming and requires more people.
— Matt Miller, Roundtown Elementary principal was in charge of the “kids”