One Hour Of A Full-Time Reality

Dear Friends,

As a young man fresh out of seminary, I decided to step off the career track and spend a year in Nicaragua working with the poor. Along the way I cleaned houses, washed dishes, and studied Spanish, but I wasn't poor. I possessed a graduate degree and a strong support network. I only needed to take care of myself. I could step back on the career track whenever I wished.
Recently, I participated in a poverty simulation run by the Boulder County Circles Program. I knew pretending I was poor was nothing like being poor. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the experience.
I checked in at the registration table and picked up my name tag, but it wasn't my name. I was assigned the identity of Irma, a 19-year-old woman.
In a gymnasium at a YMCA I joined about forty participants of all ages, volunteers, and staff members who had experienced poverty themselves. They explained the simulation: We would live a month in poverty over the course of one hour. Each week would be fifteen minutes long, and a whistle would begin and end each week.
Before the simulation began, I learned Irma hasn't finished high school and is seeking work. She lives in a mobile home with her boyfriend who has an hourly job. She is the mother of a 1-year-old boy.
My boyfriend and I quickly go through our packet. We have a few bus passes, an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card for food, and a small TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) cash allotment. We need to pay rent and a loan for our mobile home (which needs repairs we can't afford), utility bills, social service requirements, and on and on. Most of these fall to me. My boyfriend can't get off work or he'll lose his job. I look around the gym. There's the social service office, the place to pay your rent, the place to pay your utility bills, the place to get cash, the pawn shop, the police, the .... WHISTLE! GO!
What? What should I do first to survive? They said my benefits were at risk if I don't check in with social services first and register for employment training. Ride the bus. Stand in line. Fill out this form. Sit over there. The caseworker is kind. Thank goodness.
My rent. We can't get kicked out into the cold. Ride the bus. Stand in line. Someone said I could use TANF for rent. They were wrong. The man is mean. I need cash. I don't have enough. My boyfriend hasn't been paid yet.
I should pay utilities. We can't get the water and heat shut off. Ride the bus. Stand in line. I don't have enough to cover the bill. I pay half?
This is no life for my son. Maybe he could qualify for Head Start so I can look for work.
We need food. I better get to the store.
I get a social service notice to appear about my son or I might lose my benefits. Ride the bus. Stand in line. Fill out the same form I filled out before. Sit over there. You received this notice in error. Please disregard.
Someone stole my boyfriend's social security card. He's having trouble because he doesn't have ID.
I need cash for rent. Ride the bus. Stand in line. May I have cash from TANF, please? Please, I'm in a hurry. The man is rude. He tells me to take a half step back from the counter.
My boyfriend says the police are looking for me. They want to talk to me about protective services because they have a report that I'm not taking good care of my son.
We need food. Ride the bus. Wait a minute. That man shorted me $20 when he gave me my cash. My son needs diapers. My EBT card won't cover that.
Oh, no. Is that cop looking at me?
Day after day. Week after week. How can I form a plan when survival is a full-time reality? Maybe I can survive today by the skin of my teeth, but what about tomorrow? Something bad will happen. I know that. I just don't know what it will be.
After just one hour the simulation ended. We debriefed. We were stressed, exhausted, and dispirited. We had experienced the non-negotiable tyranny of the urgent. We talked about what it was like to be treated like a lower form of life. A teenager started crying and her mother held her. A woman near tears said she had just wanted to give up.
Why are people poor? Most are working, but their wages aren't enough to make ends meet. Some experience a catastrophic health episode or lose their jobs. Housing is unaffordable. Child care costs are out-of-sight.
What can people who are not poor do? Learn. Connect compassionately with people as human beings not as stereotypes. Be a friend and ally through the Circles Program or another relational and reciprocal group. Help change situations and systems.
The days are growing shorter and colder as Thanksgiving approaches. The commercial messages tell us this is the season of love and giving. May it be so for this and every season.
Yours in community,
Learn more about the Boulder County Circles Program.
Please make a gift today to your Community Foundation Boulder County so that we may support local nonprofit organizations working to end poverty and a host of other issues that define the quality of life here in Boulder County. Make a difference you can see.