“Remember, we are survivors,” is a saying of my mother’s. She reminds me often when I visit her in her home in Florida and we reminisce. As a child, I was only slightly aware of her struggles to stay a step ahead of the collection agencies. After she and my father separated, we downsized to a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York. She had a handyman build a wall to divide the bedroom so my sister and I could have separate “rooms.” She, in the meantime, created sliding panels to separate a narrow slice of the living room so that she could have privacy.
That’s how we lived from the time I was about 10 years old until about the time I graduated Forest Hills High School and my mother found her soul-mate. Then our standard of living improved.
However, my own twenties and thirties were not without their struggles. I remember the times I’d discover I didn’t have enough money in the ATM to make a withdrawal. When one bounced check would start a cascade of unpaid bills and overdraft fees I couldn’t afford.
I haven’t forgotten those days, but I haven’t been reminded of them lately, either, remembering how tenuous life was, and might be again given a few setbacks, until I participated in the Poverty Simulation at Indiana University Southeast on May 31.
Funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana, the event was open to faculty, staff, students, and members of the surrounding community for no charge. According to the organizers, “One unique aspect of the IUS model is that the volunteers who run the simulation are themselves residents of the New Albany Housing Authority and therefore have first-hand knowledge of the struggles of a low-income household.”
A poverty simulation is a role play that gives participants an idea of what it is like to experience poverty in the modern day. When I arrived, the Hoosier Room was filling fast. Many of the attendees were education students, some in the graduate program, learning more about poverty in order to become better teachers. At the check-in table I was handed an ID card, and learned that my identity for the simulation would be Warren Wiscott, a 52 year old man on disability. He was unable to get around without the help of his 9-year-old grand-daughter, whom he and his wife were raising, along with her 7-year-old brother, as their mother had been incarcerated for drug use. The seven-year old had ADHD and needed medication. These, and the other roles, were based on real families, though the names had been changed. We were given a list of income and expenses, told each 15-minute period would approximate a week in which we had to go to work, school, pay our bills, visit social agencies, cash checks, buy food and medicine, and handle all the other aspects of life.
Our income was slightly less than our expenses, but we could probably make it by pawning something, perhaps the TV. Suddenly, we received a “chance card” stating that my wife’s purse and ID had been stolen, along with her money. Unable to travel during school days, I had to wait for my 9-year-old to come home. Meanwhile, my wife, not having enough time to run essential errands as well as work, lost her job. Though I tried to help by taking my elder grand-daughter out of school for a week, it was too little, too late. It didn’t take long until we couldn’t pay the rent, were evicted, and ended up at the homeless shelter, which was full the first time we arrived, and turned us away. In fact, of the approximately 10 families in the simulation, only one ended up better off than when we began.
The simulation has stayed with me. I remember well those borderline times in my real life, when one little push from fate could have had disastrous consequences. Though I’m better off now, the future is never certain. And like my mother who reminds me that we are survivors, I didn’t survive alone. I had help. The exercise reminded me that the continuity of our income, health, and other circumstances are never guaranteed. It was clarified to me that as members of the human family, we shouldn’t judge others for their misfortunes, we shouldn’t count ourselves luckier, smarter, or more capable than others. Instead, we should empathize, treat those in poverty with dignity and respect, and make sure to clear a path for them to escape the poverty trap. For these are our fellow Americans and neighbors, and we would want the same treatment in their place.
I thank Lisa Hoffman, a professor of graduate studies in the Education department, for being one of the organizers of the Poverty Simulation. The project was made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana. For more information about the grant, see this article. For information about diversity at IU Southeast, browse this blog, and see the official diversity Web site ius.edu/diversity.