“What can I do as an individual?” was the question that University of Georgia specialist Sharon Gibson told local leaders to ask themselves following the two-to three-hour poverty simulation that was held Tuesday morning at First United Methodist Church Activities Center.
In an effort to show local leaders what Tift County students and their families are facing, the Tift County Board of Education, in cooperation with UGA’s College and Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Office, hosted the simulation program, which was called “Welcome to the State of Poverty.”
According to Atwater, who described the simulation as being similar to the Teen Maze, the program places participants into “families” and challenges them to survive for one month. During the simulated month, broken down into four 15-minute “weeks,” the families must keep roofs over their heads and food on the table, keep utilities on, make loan payments, pay for daily living expenses like transportation, handle unexpected emergencies and keep their children in school — and do it on less than $18,000 for a family of four.
The simulation is used to sensitize people in communities to obstacles low-income families face just trying to survive. Atwater said as a school system, Tift County is currently serving approximately 135 children per month through Backpack Buddies, a program that provides food for children to take home during weekends so they’re able to eat. Since August, the school system has made 193 referrals to the Department of Family and Children Services. He said many of their students are facing tough odds, and the community needs to better understand some of what they’re going through.
Atwater told participates that in Tift County, 68 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. However, due to the school system getting a grant, all local students eat at no cost. He also said 45 to 48 percent of students live at or below the poverty level, which is almost one out of two children.
Each participate was put into a family where they were provided with a description of their family, and everyone had a role to play in those families. Stationed around the room were volunteers who played the roles of agencies/businesses, which included the bank, supermarket, social services, community health center, general employer to get a paycheck or job, loan place to get quick cash, pawn shop, childcare center, homeless shelter, inter-faith services, public school, utility department, mortgage and realty, community action agency, jail/juvenile hall and the police department.
Each family was provided with instructions and a packet containing all of the resources they had available to them. Some were provided with EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards, a small amount of cash, a statement to use at the bank if they had a savings account, an employment card if they were employed and six picture cards that represented some of their belongings. Some of those belongings, valued at $100 each, could have been pawned at the pawn shop or sold on the street. In some families, all members who had to leave home during the day to work or attend school returned home to find that some of their belongings had been stolen by others who needed the items to pawn and get money for their families in order to survive.
Also, each time participants moved from one resource area to another, they had to submit a transportation pass for themselves and each person with them. This represented bus fares, gasoline, taxi or walking time. Those families who had an EBT card could only use it to purchase food items and no other necessities. However, those who didn’t have an EBT card could go to the social services office to learn about eligibility.
During the simulation, some families randomly received unexpected “good news” or “bad news” cards, which represented life’s little surprises. Additionally, families had to go to the mortgage company to pay their rent or make their mortgage payments.
“They have to just make it,” said Roxie Price, family and consumer sciences agent with the UGA Cooperative Extension in Tifton. She said the participates are put in different realistic situations and have to make it work the best way they know how.
Among the dynamics that the families faced included: a mother with two children, only $10, no father in the house and in the process of applying for food stamps; five-member family, unemployed father, employed mother and three children; a grandparent as the primary caregiver; a senior citizen living on her own; an 85-year-old homeless woman; a seven-year-old child with ADHD living with grandmother and disabled grandfather while the mother is in jail due to drugs; single father who has a daughter with a baby and has another child that he’s trying to take care of; and a Spanish-speaking family where the mother has disappeared and the father is in jail.
These types of scenarios are real situations that are happening in the real world says Gibson, who has been presenting the poverty simulation since 1998.
“Today, when we’re talking about poverty, we’re talking about all of us,” she told participates prior to the simulation starting. “You all represent different kinds of families who do exist here and in surrounding areas.”
She asked them how they would feel if they went to work that day and received an envelope containing a notice stating they were no longer needed.
Gibson said the simulation is not the answer, but it’s the beginning of a conversation. She told participants to enjoy themselves while going through it, but to also seriously think about their situations, act like families and try to survive.
At the end of the simulation, participants were asked to gather in a circle to discuss their experiences. Some participants described their situations as being “hectic,” “overwhelming,” “fearful,” “too real” and “enlightening.” One volunteer said he noticed that not as many people applied for unemployment due to them being too busy trying to take care of other needs.
Tift County School Nutrition Director Vanessa Hayes, who was also a volunteer, said, “Today starts a conversation with me.” She said everyone can do a little better with finding ways to help.
Others noted that many children in the school system are not only dealing with these “adult issues” at home, but they’re having to come to school with it also.
Gibson said there are different types of poverty: poverty of the spirit, poverty of knowledge and poverty of the community. She noted that all children in poverty don’t commit crimes and not all parents aren’t trying.
“Most families are trying,” she said.
City Manager Larry Riner, who was a participant, added there are some families who go through poverty and come out successful and make sacrifices.
“It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” said City Councilwoman Julie Smith, who was a participant. “It was amazing to see how frustrating trying to work through the system was and sort of the lack of understanding from the people we were having to deal with who had control over what our next move was. That was really disturbing to me.”
She said in her family situation, she played the role of the father, and she always felt like she was “a day late and a dollar short.”
“It was like I just couldn’t get things done fast enough and that cost our family so much money,” she said. “It was sad to learn that people in my family were turning to crime as a solution for our problem. You can just see how that perpetuates over and over and over, because if the children are turning to crime to help support the family and the family rewards that. How do you get out of that cycle?”
Smith said in their scenario, there were resources that were available to their family that they didn’t know about, and they didn’t find out about them until after everything was over. She said had they been aware that those resources were there and taken advantage of them, there wouldn’t have been that pressure on some of their family members to turn to crime.
“We didn’t have the knowledge that we needed to be able to function as a family,” she said. As her role of father, she said she spent all of her time going to work. She was so focused on work that she couldn’t interact with her family.
She added, “It was just really eye opening to see the pressure that families are under and just being empathetic to that. We sort of live in our own little bubble and don’t realize that there are people who might be our neighbor that are in these circumstances, and what can we do to help that?”
Smith said the challenge they all left with was: learn what the resources are, get the word out, talk to people who are in positions to do something about it and let’s do something about it.
“This was a good morning spent challenging ourselves,” she said.
She said as local leaders, “we can’t fix everything, but we can certainly have the conversations and do what we can do to hopefully have a positive impact on these families.”
Jadonna Jackson, resident initiatives manager for the Tifton Housing Authority, who was also a participant, said the experience was very enlightening and actually touched home for her. She said she was a single parent for almost 20 years with three children. Today, she’s no longer a single parent, and two of her children are in college and the third child is a junior in high school.
“Although it hit home, it just makes me want to do more for my community,” she said.
To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.