Community members and Georgia Southern students were given the opportunity Saturday to gain a better understanding of the effects of poverty and journey through a “month” of struggles and difficulties during a “Poverty Simulation” that was held at the Russell Union Ballroom.
Sponsored by the university's Department of Public and Nonprofit Studies, the Business Innovation Group and the Office of Student Leadership and Civic Engagement, the event took place in four, 15-minute segments, with each segment representing a week’s time in the life of an impoverished family or individual.
When participants arrived, they were placed into family or individual units and given a packet describing their background.
Nic Gross, a 20-year-old science major from Newington, was given the identity of a homeless 19-year-old mom. The first task card instructed Gross to get food with food stamps for “herself, a boyfriend and a 1-year-old child.”
Twenty-one-year-old Peyton Rowe, a political science major/theater minor from John’s Creek, north of Atlanta, assumed the identity of an 85-year-old homeless woman. Rowe’s theater experience was evident during her interactions with community volunteers who assisted with the simulation.
Rowe spent a great deal of time during the first segment bartering with the pawn shop owner to get the best deal for personal property. Her pleading and begging escalated until she finally accepted the pawn shop worker’s final offer.
Rowe then dashed to the table set up for housing assistance. But it was too late. Just as she handed over her paperwork, Kate Blair, director of Communications and Development of Step-Up Savannah, announced the end of the first “week.”
Rowe was told the establishment was now closed, but that she could come back tomorrow. In character, but yet with obvious frustration, Rowe exclaimed, “Oh my gosh – I was in line! I’m 85 and I’m homeless and I’m the only one in my family. I’m just trying to get a place to live.”
After the first segment, Blair explained to the participants that an important part of the simulation is to thrust the participants into tasks immediately, without much explanation, to show that many who are impoverished have no idea how to begin seeking help, nor are aware of programs that could be beneficial.
At that point, each of the “services” and “entities” were introduced and explained, including the pretend utility company, owned and operated by volunteer Mayor Jonathan McCollar, who told participants they must pay on-time or risk having their electricity turned off.
When the pawn shop operator took her turn, she shared that her establishment only accepted the best quality goods and she “promised” quality prices. To which, Rowe yelled emphatically from her position in the homeless shelter, “No she does not give quality prices.”
No money for medications
During the second 15-minute segment, representing another week in the impoverished participants, GS graduate student, Nancey Price, who also works full-time at Georgia Southern, assumed her “place” in the home – four chairs set up in the ballroom. The role she took on as a participant was a disabled mother-in-law, living with her daughter-in-law.
“I need my medications and my daughter-in-law doesn’t have the money to get them,” Price said about her task-card. “We just got a notice from our mortgage company that we’re late, too.”
Price said that she’d experienced only a small taste of similar struggles in her own life.
“I’ve had family members in this situation, however, I was always outside looking in. But, I was in-between jobs for a couple of months recently and had to figure out what to do, how to keep surviving.”
Price said it was different in the simulation, because she was part of a family trying to navigate poverty.
“It’s real experiences of what it means to be in poverty, how convoluted the system is, how confusing. And how quick money goes. Just when you think you have money, it’s gone. That’s depressing.”
Navigating child care
Week three of the simulation represented a break from school, so the family units had to navigate childcare. Community member Lori Grice’s information card deemed her a 9-year-old student with asthma and a learning disability. Grice said in character.
“I got in trouble last week in school and my daddy had to go to the school so they cut him back to part time. I broke a window and that cost $55 and the rent is late.”
And as if on cue, just as she shared her plight, Mayor McCollar in his role with the utility company, showed up to announce that the bill hadn’t been paid and they were in danger of losing their electricity.
In seriousness, Grice shared that she and her daughter, Edie Grace, chose to take part in the event to become more aware of their community.
“We want to be the change,” Grice said. “You have to experience things like this to be able to understand all the different aspects.
“Growing up with a single mom, we got dressed by the oven after making toast for breakfast because it was cold in the rest of the trailer. A lot of the decisions and things I do in the community is because I’ve experienced this.”
Madison Garcia, a 19-year-old college student from Springfield, showed obvious frustration during the last 15-minute segment. When asked if she was having any success with her task cards, she replied, “Not really, no. It’s just so hard to get out of it. We’re probably going to get evicted.
“I have a voucher for food, but that’s it. I can’t get child care because I have to see the doctor to sign the child care form and it’s $80 to see the doctor. I don’t have it.”
Simulation or not, Garcia seemed as if she were close to tears with her situation.
Edie Grace Grice, in her role as the breadwinner, informed the family that she’d lost her electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card at one point.
What she didn’t realize was that volunteer Samantha Smith, dean of Adult Education at Ogeechee Technical College, was taking part in some “illegal activities.” Smith, in her volunteer role, was tasked to snitch, pilfer, and steal items left lying around, as well as attempt to involve the participants in activities that would lead to quick cash.
“I sell hats, weaves, shirts, guns – registered and clean – and some other items,” Smith said in character. “It’s all cash. I have some people that make deliveries for me, drop things off. I can pay you cash.”
Smith was quite convincing, and in desperation, some of the participants who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere during the simulation gave in to her offers for work. And for those that hesitated or declined, she said, “I’ll be around. I’ll be back to see if you need some extra cash to feed the family later.”
When the simulated month was over, some of the families were in better shape, but many weren’t.
“I got out of the homeless shelter,” Gross said proudly. “I got a place to live.”
He said the experience was quite an eye-opener.