A Snapshot of Life in Poverty

Imagine that the end of the month is approaching, and you still haven’t paid your rent.  You have a little extra cash left from your last paycheck, but some of that will have to go towards groceries for your family, which doesn’t leave much for anything else.

You decide to pawn off your television set, but the money you get back is far less than what it’s actually worth and it doesn’t even begin to cover all of your bills.

Your mind starts reeling with stress. I can’t get evicted!  I can’t lose my kids.  But what if I can’t provide for them anymore?  Would they be better off in foster care? No, I can’t think like that! I’ve got to make ends meet – one way or another.


For families living below the poverty line in the United States, this type of situation is a monthly, weekly, or even daily occurrence. In Story County alone, approximately 16,366 people are in poverty; the rate of poverty within the county is 20.1%, which is higher than the state average (12.2%) 1.

Sustainability and poverty go hand in hand. In the Brundtland Report, the World Commission on Environment and Development wrote, “A world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises.”2

But for those who have never experienced poverty, it can be difficult to understand and empathize with the issues that people in poverty face.

Here at ISU, poverty affects the people around us in ways that might not always be immediately obvious. Some students are single parents, some students have parents who have been laid off from work, and some students have parents who are incarcerated. Poverty can affect anyone, but there’s no way of knowing if a classmate’s bad day can be chalked up to missing the bus or a more serious issue at home.

Our society can become more sustainable and we can all become more understanding and patient by looking at the world through another person’s perspective.

On January 18th, Madi and I were able to get a brief snapshot of life in poverty through the Volunteer Center of Story County’s poverty simulation. A poverty simulation is a “unique and enlightening experience that helps individuals begin to understand what life is like with a shortage of money and an abundance of stress.”3

How does the simulation work?

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Laurelin as a teacher in the community school

When we arrived at the event, we chose a name tag at random. The name tag represented a person who was living in poverty, and throughout the simulation we assumed the roles and responsibilities of our new identity.

Our new identity was part of a family unit, and when the simulation began, we had about five minutes to read a brief description about our family’s situation, including biographies on each family member, a list of bills and expenses that had to be paid each month, information on income sources, and other unique characteristics of our household (I don’t know what to include here?).  All of the family scenarios in the simulation were based on actual families’ journeys.

Our families were given “homes” (chairs arranged into a square in the middle of the room). Businesses and services that most families need or use on a monthly basis (utility company, grocery store, school, bank, church) or services they may utilize in times of need (pawn shop, homeless shelter, food pantry), were located at tables which were arranged around the perimeter of the room.

Whenever we traveled to any location outside of our home, we had to spend money for transportation – so that had to be budgeted too.  The simulation took 40 minutes to complete, and during that time period we lived a month of our fictional lives, sectioned out in 10 minute weeks.  Our goal was to survive the month and ensure our families had food, shelter, and clothing and didn’t get arrested or evicted.

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In the span of one week, depending upon our family’s circumstance, we had to travel around the community to various locations for work, school, groceries, child care, social services, and banking. Within the 10 minutes we were given for each week, a full time job took up 5 minutes of time and a part time job took up 3 minutes. This left 5-7 minutes to complete important errands, like buying food for the week – that is if you had money to complete the errands.

If you didn’t have a job, or your family was in a situation where a parent was suddenly laid-off from a job, or someone wasn’t able to work due to an illness, then you needed to find financial assistance to buy food. So extra time was needed to complete forms for financial assistance, or extra time was needed to visit the food pantry or the church; as a result, a lot of time was spent waiting in line.

At the end of each week, we were given two minutes to regroup with our families on the “weekend.” After the end of the two minutes the week started again, and the cycle continued until we had completed all four weeks in the month.

Madi’s Experience

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Josh and Madi as 13-year-old twin sisters, Patricia and Penelope

Our family situation was initially very stressful. Our parents were divorced, and our dad just got sent to jail for eviction.  To make things worse, our mother refused to pay for child support. Our family of four only had $200 leftover from our dad’s last paycheck, and he had paid a full month of rent before going to jail, so we didn’t have to worry about that expense. We had to pay $440 in utilities by the end of the month, and we also had to pay for food and clothes every week, which amounted to $60 and $40 weekly. On top of all that, our older brother was a college student who didn’t have a job.

After reading our family description, my group members and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. “How are we going to pull this off?”  I thought to myself.

The first week began, and my twin and I went to school feeling helpless.  We couldn’t get a job – because we had to go school.  Our older brother made the tough decision to skip school to run errands, such as taking the baby to daycare, pawning off our microwave and TV, and buying food for us to eat.  By the third week, we were almost out of money. We only had about $20, and we still had to pay for food, clothing, and utilities for the rest of the month.

As 13-year-olds, my twin and I couldn’t really do anything, which was so frustrating.   But then my twin suggested that we steal from another family, and I couldn’t help but agree.  We had gotten desperate.  So during the third week, when school was out for break and our neighbors were away from their homes at work, we stole a sofa and a television, then tried to sell them at the local pawnshop.

Reflecting on that moment, it’s heart wrenching to imagine children actually going through that. I knew that stealing was wrong, but I really felt like I had no other options. If our family couldn’t make more money, my sister and I might have been taken away from our older brother because he was failing to provide for us.  It is so saddening to realize that families are faced with decisions like this every day, right in our own community.

The last week of the month, one of our neighbors saw our desperate situation and asked if we wanted to move in with them. The family we joined was so welcoming, but my twin and I looked at each other with guilty eyes because they were one of the families that we had stolen from.

Overall, the poverty simulation really opened by eyes. I had no idea how hard it is for people living in poverty, and I only got a taste of the constant struggle that they go through on a day-to-day basis.

I was constantly worried about my family and how we were going to make ends meet. I knew that stealing was wrong, yet I did it anyway because I was desperate and I wanted to help out in some way. This process reminded me of how lucky I am and that I cannot take things for granted, such as never worrying if I’ll have food for the week.

Laurelin’s Experience

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Laurelin’s household of of four

To begin my morning, I picked a nametag from the registration table, which told me that I was the 40-year-old male breadwinner of the Q family. I had a 20-year-old daughter in college, a 9-year-old son, and a 1-year-old granddaughter.

To begin the simulation, we were given more information about our family’s situation. We were pretty fortunate because I had a job, my daughter had a part time job, and we seemed to be able to make enough money to get us through the month. Once the time on the clock for the first week started, I shot out of my seat and ran around in circles trying to figure out the best step to take. That first week was really chaotic – I didn’t know what was going on, and I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to cash my check, so I didn’t even get food for the family that week.

As we moved along in the simulation, things got easier to handle. My daughter skipped school to work part time and help me out with errands, and we eventually got enough money to pay off almost all of our bills and feed the family each week with some cash to spare.

Throughout the first simulation, I was running around (literally running from table to table) trying to get everything done in the short amount of time that I didn’t spend working. I was so focused on my family and our problems that I didn’t even think to ask if other people needed help. I experienced a kind of tunnel vision, and I was completely dedicated to my goal of keeping my family out of trouble for the month.

At the end of the simulation, I felt completely drained. The thing that resonated with me the most was how difficult and stressful it is to try and get by while living in poverty. There are a lot of unavoidable trade-offs that you have to make for the good of the family – like giving up school, spending time with your children, or possessions to feed the family.

As an ISU student, I feel like I’m constantly taking my college education for granted – and that really hit home when my simulated daughter had to give up her own education in order to help me make ends meet. Many college students face this same dilemma, and I can hardly begin to imagine how tough their decisions can be.

And so I was also really touched by the people who – despite everything – gave donations to those organizations that helped them once they got back on their feet, in other words paying it forward for others in need.  It was sort of incredible and humbling to think that they could keep that in mind with all they had to deal with.

What did we take away?

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Students line up at the Pawn Shop to buy transportation cards or sell belongings for cash

Poverty is still a huge problem in the United States, and experiences like poverty simulations are important for raising awareness of this issue. They are a great way to encourage discussions about poverty, which will hopefully lead to community action and support for those living below the poverty line.

Overall, our poverty simulation experience really opened our eyes to our own privilege and changed the way that we see the world and the social inequities that exist in every community.  It also taught us valuable lessons about the importance of economic sustainability and financial literacy – simply understanding how the system works is a huge advantage for families in poverty.

How can we make a difference in the future?  We can voice our concerns to local politicians. We can help by volunteering – signing up to serve food at our local food banks or by donating daily necessities and clothing to our homeless shelter.  We can help by treating strangers with a little more kindness in our everyday lives because it’s impossible to know someone’s story from a single interaction.

For more information about future poverty simulations or to volunteer in the Ames community, visit the Volunteer Center of Story County’s website.


Authors: Madisun VanGundy and Laurelin Haas
Featured Image: Flickr.com

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