Living on the Edge… a poverty simulation

Last week I participated in a poverty simulation exercise and I learned much from the experience. Not all of what I learned, however, was about poverty.

The exercise was the opening event of the Starting Strong Early Childhood Development Summit in Winnipeg November 20-21, sponsored jointly by Healthy Child Manitoba, United Way Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council.

Upon registering, I selected a name tag from a selection lying face down on the registration table. The name printed on the other side would determine the role I was to play for the next hour and a half.

I was a 15-year-old female. Not a difficult role to play, I thought, unlike the middle-age businessman next in line who discovered he was now a pregnant teenager.

In the room where the event was to be held, chairs had been grouped into family units. We were instructed to find our families. I lived with my dad, who worked full-time for minimum wage; my mom, who was unemployed; and my grandma, who was developing signs of dementia.

Around the outer edges of the room were tables manned by volunteers, each representing an institution or service in the community. There was a generic place of employment, a school, a child care centre, a family resource program, a bank, a cash store, a pawn shop, a grocery store, social service offices, a utilities office and more. Every time you went to one of these places you needed a transportation coupon; the only exception to this rule was the school, which was free.

Each family was given information on the sources of income available to them each month, as well as monthly expenses. We were given a certain number of transportation coupons, as well as laminated cards showing possessions which could be pawned if necessary.

The hour-long exercise was divided into four 15 minute sessions, with each session representing one week. The first 10 minutes were spent at work or school for those who had jobs or were students. A buzzer would sound to signal the end of work/school, after which participants had three minutes to complete their necessary errands – cash pay cheques, pick up children from care, buy groceries, pay the rent and utilities, etc. Another buzzer signaled the arrival of the weekend, when all offices and businesses closed. We had two minutes to relax and prepare for the next week.

Meanwhile, as we went through our weekly routines, other volunteers would suddenly appear at our side, handing out the unexpected – little cards that told us we needed emergency dental work, our car’s transmission needed repair, or our son had been charged with a drugs offense. Some of the cards were positive, but the bad seemed to outweigh the good.

In week one, my family forgot to buy groceries.

In week two, we found out I needed glasses, but we had no money to pay for them.

Week three was spring break and I earned enough money at my part time job to pay for my glasses. But my parents were short on rent money and we were going to be evicted, so my eyeglass money went to the landlord instead.

It seemed that every time we turned around we needed money we didn’t have.

My dad discovered that you needed to be aggressive in the bank teller line-up Friday afternoons, otherwise the bank would close before it was your turn and you would enter a new week with no money in your pockets.

My mother discovered the frustration of being home during the week, with no transportation coupons to go places and therefore limited ability to do errands.

My grandma went out, but forgot she needed coupons and then couldn’t remember where home was.

There were examples of kindness along the way, and ingenuity, too, in finding ways to make ends meet. We received a card telling us that our plumbing needed repair. My dad used the duct tape we had in the cupboard.

The volunteers who manned the various stations had been instructed to be rude and slow and they followed instructions well.

But there was laughter, too. “Do you realize we forgot to get groceries this week?”  my ‘mom’ asked after Week 1. We laughed.

A lady came by trying to sell a watch for extra money. “That’s my watch,” Grandma said. “I pawned it last week.” We laughed.

Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

So what did I learn?  Many things, although the first thing that struck me was this:

When we got together for our ‘weekends’, we spent the time preparing for the next week. Did we have enough money to pay the bills? Did we have enough transportation coupons? We had no time to be a family, to interact as parents and children on a more relaxed level, to talk to each other and listen to each other.

And then I thought:

But there are many families not in impoverished circumstances who are not making those connections, either.  Poverty has a negative impact on families, no question.  But it is not the only factor at work here.

And finally, because I do not live in a city, I imagined a revamped exercise in which the rural and northern experience came into play. Where the places you need to go are too far to walk to and there are no buses, for example.

There is much to think about.

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