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A reflection from Lisa, who recently attended one of United Way's Poverty Simultions.
This past Tuesday night, I agreed to take part in a poverty simulation put on by United Way of Larimer County. As a privileged university student, I knew that I did not have any real understanding of poverty, but I thought I at least knew some basic things, like that poverty is cyclic and getting out of the cycle is a challenge.
One of the most striking facts I learned, that I didn’t know going into the activity, is that the federal poverty line is calculated only by the cost of three, minimally nutritive meals a day. Yet, there are so many other costs that families have to think about, like housing, childcare, and electric and utility bills. The most surprising cost that I noticed people struggled with during the simulation was covering the unexpected things that life throws at you. Things like medical bills and prescriptions were often high, unpredictable costs that even people who met their basic, day-to-day living needs could not afford.
I don’t know what I was expecting the simulation would be like, but I certainly didn’t believe people when they said that it would be emotional and hard. I just thought, “How challenging could a simulation be?”
For the simulation, I was given the character of a 13 year old girl who lived in a house with her 3 year old baby brother, 21 year old brother who was trying to graduate from college, and a twin sister. Our father was in jail and mom was not in the picture.
Even though I did not know any of the other people participating in the simulation, pretending to be a young girl watching a stranger play the role of my 21 year old brother struggling to take care of his siblings and navigate resources while also trying to pursue his dreams and get ahead in school was very emotional. Seeing his very real frustration during the simulation was enough to bring me to the verge of tears a few times. I felt so helpless and burdensome to him. He had to be consistently late to class because he was dropping off our baby brother at daycare, and one time he had to run away from school to deal with child protective services who were about to take the baby away. We had been late picking him up from daycare because we were trying to find assistance to buy food we couldn’t otherwise afford. Our baby brother was played by a doll, but I still felt a pang of desperation and hopelessness as child protective services took him away, thinking, “Now what do we do?” And we were playing the roles of kids much younger than our real ages.
I thought I knew that stress was a challenge people in poverty faced, but I never thought about how stress impacts everything you do. It was stressful just getting through one, 15-minute session that represented a week. That’s not even one real 24-hour day. That stress level didn’t include trying to get ahead or improve our situation, just us trying to get through. I knew that poverty was cyclic; that poverty is perpetuated by poverty, but the simulation opened my eyes to just how massive a challenge it is to get out. This little snapshot of difficulties illustrated to me how hard it is to be in poverty and how impossible it must feel for someone, especially young people, to get out of that place on their own.
Here at United Way, we know how hard it can be to get out of poverty. That's why we are working wtih more than 70 community partners to address the root issues that cause poverty. Together, we are building a stronger Larimer County where all people have a shot at opportunity and where they can build brighter futures for their families.
Copyright 2015 United Way of Larimer County