I am a child of poverty. Do you know what I’m going through? Do you know the struggles my family faces every day? Do you know my worries? Do you know my strengths? Do you still believe I can succeed despite my challenges? Can you help me believe in myself? Can you give me the skills to succeed?
Thursday I experienced life in poverty. I participated in a poverty simulation. During the simulation, each participant lived for a month in the shoes of a person of poverty. We experienced their joys and sorrows, triumphs and challenges. We walked away as changed individuals, more understanding and empowered to make a difference.
I spent the month as Henry Hancock, a 50-year-old gentleman, who had fallen on hard times. Together with my wife, Hilda, and 16-year-old daughter, Hanna, we faced many ups and downs as a family. We lost our farm and had recently moved due to financial struggles. Our new life brought many challenges.
Knowing that I was the head of the household presented me with a desire to keep my family strong, yet each turn was difficult. We had hit an all time low financially and the burden was heavy on all of us. I had recently found a job, but my salary would not be enough to support us. Living paycheck to paycheck was a constant hardship.
During our first week, Hannah went off to school and Hilda went to find employment to help make ends meet. My intentions were to secure our transportation for the month, pay some bills and buy groceries, none of which actually happened. Instead, I fell victim to a robbery and spent time at the police station filling out paper work. I returned home very distraught only to learn of the death of my grandfather, which amounted to more sadness and additional expenses for our family.
To make matters worse, my wife was unable to find employment and Hanna, our daughter, turned to illegal drug dealing to gain money for the family so we could make ends meet. I was unable to provide for my family. I felt like a failure. We did not purchase groceries due to not being able to secure transportation. To make matter worse, the school was asking for school supplies and party treats. During this first week, and subsequent weeks to follow, sending money to school was the last thing on our minds. We had to survive. We did our best just to get our daughter to school each day. During the events debriefing, our daughter reported that her mind was not on school very much. It was on her parents. She found herself wondering if we were doing the things that we needed to do to provide for our family.
We barely made it through the next three weeks. We were able to purchase food and pay our bills. We did need to pawn off several of our possessions, some of which were our daughters. This did not set well with her. At 16, she started to rebel even more and was eventually expelled from school. She had been a very good student at her last school. This move and our financial situation were traumatic for her.
As a family, we withdrew into ourselves. We didn’t make contact with many others, even if we saw they were struggling. We had to take care of our needs and were unable to help those around us. As the head of the household, I stood up to doing what was right and abiding by rules. Since being robbed once, I lived in constant fear and was not very trusting of others I encountered. Unfortunately, my daughter was exposed to the instant gratification of making money quickly through illegal activities.
Yet, the kindness of others helped use find hope. I wasn’t sure what to do at the utility department, and the clerk provided helpful guidance. The police officer stayed in contact and assisted in locating my stolen items. On my journeys, I had found something of value that belonged to someone else. When I turned it in, I was rewarded a few extra travel vouchers – something that was needed to survive!
We were some of the lucky ones during the month. Some neighbors were evicted. Other had major health concerns that were complicated by their financial burdens. Younger families struggled with child care costs and employment was difficult to find.
During my first years of teaching, in a small Catholic School, I found myself living paycheck to paycheck. Yet, that does not come anywhere close to the feelings of frustration and helplessness I felt during the simulation.
Every thought was on our state of financial despair. How were we going to make ends meet? How would we survive? How can we turn our daughter’s troubled life around?
The simulation started quickly, on purpose. It caused us to have to think fast and stay in the moment, rather than draw upon our own personal experiences. During the simulation, I remember feeling frustrated with the various requests from school (supplies, 100-day project money, treats for a party). When we had a little extra money we sent it to school. I wanted to appear to be a good parent, yet there was no time to even think about becoming involved at school. Right at the end of the simulation, our daughter had been expelled. At that moment, I did want to her what we could do to get her back in school, but the simulation time had ended.
I have played the events of the simulation over and over in my mind. If I could have a “do-over” I would have done some things differently. One major change would have been to take my daughter to school on the first day in her new school! We only had three transportation passes to start with, so it didn’t even cross my mind to go with her. My own life’s experiences tell me that would have been the best thing I could have done to get her off to a good start, but our need to survive must have erased that thought from my mind.
Did the teacher think I didn’t care for my child because I did not come to school or quickly act on her requests? I was doing everything I could to help us survive day-to-day? It was impossible for us to get to school during the day due to our work schedule. Did that make me any less of a parent?
I know that what I experienced in this poverty simulation only touches a minute part of what so many experience every day. My eyes have been opened. I will continue to help make a difference for those in need. Most importantly, I will believe in the talents and skills of EACH child I encounter. I will strive to provide them the skills they need to succeed in a life beyond poverty. Yes, they need our nurturing spirits, but we are obligated to let their genius shine through! As Angela Maiers reminds us – we must let them know THEY MATTER!
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD!
~ Mahatma Gandhi
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
I have had a few inquiries about the poverty simulation mentioned above. Here are a few resources.
- The Iowa State Extension Service conducted our poverty simulation at Northwest AEA. To my knowledge they use The Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) kit.
- A few books that may be of interest include:
- Howard, T., Dresser, S.G. & Dunkelee, D.R. (2009). Poverty is not a learning disability: Equalizing opportunities for low SES students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
- Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
- Payne, R. (2005). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process, Inc.