Poverty Simulation Opens Eyes for Education/Health Community

At 8 am on the morning of Dec. 1st, approximately 60 education and health professionals and community members gathered together in a conference room to take part in a Community Poverty Simulation, orchestrated by Trident United Way.

Thirty minutes later the room was humming with chatter and motion as the participants, who had been split up into family units of every shape and size, tried to follow directions for their first week in the simulated month. They had to get kids to school, get to work, pay bills, buy food, visit the bank and apply for social services. People were scrambling to form long lines, concerned about the number of transportation passes they had (each trip anywhere but school took one pass) and how long each task was taking.

“I didn’t realize how much emotional stress I would have,” one participant said following the simulation. The participants, all members of Healthy Tri-County or the Kindergarten Readiness Network, are mostly working or retired professionals who are engaged in helping their community become a better place for every resident.The purpose of their participation in the simulation was to give them a real life glimpse of the environment and stressors that many people living in poverty face daily. 

As the hour wore on, broken down into 15-minute weeks, the level of stress and intensity heightened as families ran into barriers. Some ran out of transportation passes before pay day and lost their jobs because they couldn’t get to work on time. Others were forced to sell items at the pawn shop or pay exorbitant fees to cash checks because they didn’t have bank accounts or couldn’t get there when it was open. Nearly all of them neglected to pick up medicine for common chronic illnesses like diabetes or see a doctor when they fell ill.

The situations that arose in the simulation, which follows the Missouri Community Poverty Simulation program, are routine for thousands of residents across the Tri-County area. South Carolina is ninth from the bottom in food security and many of our neighbors rely on SNAP benefits and food pantries to keep from going hungry.  

"People are always very frustrated and always very surprised at how hard it is to live in poverty," Trident United Way Director of Integrated Community Services Cathy Easley said. "The poverty simulation dispels the myth that all people living in poverty are unemployed. Many of the scenarios in the poverty simulation - and in real life - have people working multiple jobs to try to make ends meet."

Easley pointed out that a person working a full-time, minimum wage job is only making $15,080 per year. If they add a seperate, part-time job they are working 60 hours a week and still only earning $22,000, which is below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. 

"I cannot believe in such a short time – a matter of hours – my whole view of what our clients and patients are going through changed,” Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired Charleston Executive Director Courtney P. Plotner said.

One statistic Easley shared particularly shocks participants: 35% of South Carolinians remain unbanked or underbanked. This means they rely on money orders or carry cash around. They end up paying fees to get their checks cashed and for money orders to pay bills.

“I’m surprised at how many people prey on people who are struggling to make it,” TUW’s Resource Development Administrative Assistant Terri Crocker said as she participated in the simulation for the first time.

The simulation resulted in an increased awareness of the material conditions of everyday life among families living in poverty, even for professionals who work with this population on a regular basis.

“Going back to work, I’m going to be looking at things through a different lens,” Stacy Brown, the director of operations at Metanoia Youth Leadership Academy, reflected.

Trident United Way currently offers community poverty simulations approximately once per quarter as a tool to educate community members on everyday experiences of family members working to make ends meet. If you are interested in learning more about Trident United Way’s Community Poverty Simulations or participating in one, please contact Cathy Easley at ceasley@tuw.org.