Learning about life below the poverty line
By Drew Stuart
“You are now Dan Duntley,” a greeter said to me as I took in my surroundings at Cornwall Church.
She handed me my new identity on a laminated name tag with a picture of, presumably, me. Still adjusting, I was intrigued at the novelty of assuming the identity of an impoverished 17-year-old.
By the end of the night, however, the reality of a life lived below the poverty line had sunk in.
This was the beginning of a Friday night’s poverty simulation, an event placing participants from Whatcom County in the shoes of the 40 million Americans who live in poverty today, according to statistics from the Pew Research Center.
Local nonprofit group The Whatcom Dream hosted the simulation, which ran from April 19-20 and attracted more than 60 participants.
Each participant was assigned a new identity and told to fill out a questionnaire asking about their opinions on poverty before walking into a common room with hot dogs, coleslaw and baked beans.
Trudy Shuravloff, the executive director of The Whatcom Dream, told us this dinner was served on purpose. The meal was typical of the 16 percent of Whatcom County residents living in poverty, a reality she was familiar with, she said.
“I grew up in poverty,” Shuravloff said. “I grew up on welfare.”
Then came the real simulation.
We walked into a town called “Realville,” a simulated town set up in the gymnasium of Cornwall Church.
Realville contained several kinds of services and businesses for us, including a general employer, grocery store, school, pawnshop and more.
At the center of the gym were our houses – a few foldable chairs with our surnames on them helped us orient ourselves in the simulation.
We were introduced to our families and learned not just our names, but who we were. My character, Dan Duntley, was a 17-year-old dropout running with a crowd of drug dealers. A 16-year-old was expecting my baby.
My father had recently abandoned my mother, sister and I with no explanation. We were tasked with paying for our utilities, rent or mortgage, bank loans and groceries. My mother had no job and my sister was too young to work. I was a considered a “delinquent” in Realville and thus, was unlikely to get a job.
We quickly turned to selling our possessions – each group had certain amenities according to their level of poverty at the beginning of the simulation.
We sold our jewelry and our microwave, but received only a fraction of their retail value from the pawnbroker. My mother found a job after the first week, but wasn’t paid well enough to keep us afloat.
The pressure to make ends meet only got worse with time. We had only 15 minutes per “week’” to work, buy food and pay bills. Realizing how little money we could make, we scrambled to apply for welfare and keep up with bills.
We were being pulled in every direction all at once.
“What you’ve experienced tonight is called living in the tyranny of the moment,” Shuravloff said. “You just move from crappy crisis to crappy crisis. That results in toxic stress.”
By the end of the fourth week, my family was in shambles.
We defaulted on our mortgage payments and were evicted from our house. I tried to sell bus passes to scrounge up some money, but to no avail. It was only after we became homeless that Social Services provided us with any help.
Yet, that help consisted of only $85 of EBT – a food benefits program allowing us to eat.
After roughly an hour, the simulation came to a close. Many participants shared their experiences afterwards with the group. Stories about getting evicted and going hungry were common.
Margie Cochran, a participant in the simulation, fared about as well as our group did. Her character, Ann Aber, held a low-paying job to support her husband and three children. Without knowing how to get help, her family was also evicted from their home.
“I was feeling really frustrated at the chaotic system that people had to contend with,” Cochran said.
Cochran was able to get back into her home with a late payment, but had another payment due the next week that she knew she wouldn’t be able to pay.
“It was humiliating,” Cochran said.
A common thread among participants was empathy. By the end of the simulation, every participant felt the effects of toxic stress and the constant struggle that accompanied it.
It was clear that once someone is in poverty, especially if they’re young, it becomes incredibly challenging to get out. This observation isn’t anecdotal either. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 35 to 46 percent of children who grew up in medium to high levels of poverty were still poor as adults.
According to Shuravloff, that’s the point. She said she knows that walking in someone else’s shoes – almost literally – has a profound effect on people.
“This event is for people who did not grow up in poverty,” Shuravloff said. “I want to raise awareness.”
Cari Griffith, The Whatcom Dream secretary, said she hopes that the simulation created an understanding of what living in poverty is like for the participants.
“It’s gonna take people willing to look at people in the eye with kindness and compassion,” Griffith said.