A landlord bangs on the front door of the Chen house.
“Where’s the rent?” he says.
The family is struggling. The father is unemployed. The family’s credit cards are maxed out.
Their home is in need of repairs. But the mother, Stacy, is the sole breadwinner in a house that includes a pregnant 16-year-old who’s always out visiting her boyfriend.
That often leaves 10-year-old Carl to look after 8-year-old Chad, who has just been released back to the family after police caught him trying to sell drugs.
The family’s monthly expenses are $1,995. But Stacy brings home only $1,324 after taxes.
“I just cashed a check for $300,” says Stacy, hopefully, holding up the bills.
The landlord takes the money. But he warns the family must come up with the rest of the rent quickly or face eviction.
Chad says he’s hungry, plus he and Carl need $2 each to bring to school the next day for supplies, money their mother simply doesn’t have to give them.
“We haven’t ate since we came home,” Chad cries.
Things get worse. A drive-by shooting that night in the neighborhood forces the family to stay in the house for several days to make sure everything is safe.
It wouldn’t matter anyway. Stacy has no money for the bus fare back and forth to pawn a camera in the house.
Or maybe the microwave.
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“If you have been evicted from your home you need to leave the premises,” Cheryl Laws said.
The setting was the Little Creek Clubhouse in South Charleston one recent Friday. About 40 people — social service providers, legislators, housing authority employees, firefighters and a host of other community members — had spent all morning adopting another identity.
All had been assigned roles as members of low-income families in a Community Action Poverty Simulation that took place in the fictional town of Realville.
The event was hosted by the nonprofit group Pollen8, and sponsored by the City of South Charleston, the South Charleston Rotary Club and South Charleston City Council member Kathleen Walker.
Over the course of the morning, each “family” had to cope with an ever-evolving scenario, drawn from real-life challenges faced by low-income families, trying to stay above water during a fictional — albeit very trying — month.
The room was ringed by tables staffed by folks representing real-life locales and agencies with whom the families might interact: utility and mortgage companies, a local church aiding the needy, a pawn shop, the local jail, social services agencies, a homeless shelter and school.
After the simulation concluded, Laws, founder and director of community resources for Pollen8, asked for a show of hands.
Whose families ended up in better circumstances? Who ended up worse?
A handful of families’ situations improved a bit. A clear majority of hands indicated most struggled.
One man said he decided to leave a son in jail for a while because at least he would have food and warmth unavailable at a home, where the utilities were shut off and money for food was scarce.
Others noted how they were put into a position where siblings were raising one another as parents struggled with unemployment or were waylaid by addiction.
Carly Walker, who is a CAMC systems analyst and head basketball coach at South Charleston High School, raised her hand. For the purposes of the simulation, she was a working mother and sole support for her children.
“I felt pretty terrible about myself,” she said of her persona. “I couldn’t feed my kids. I couldn’t keep up with my job and paying all the bills. It was not a fun experience at all.”
Later, in an interview, Walker said the simulation was emotional.
“It was mainly frustrating, putting myself in the position of being a mother trying to provide for her three kids and her husband just got laid off. I think I was making $9 an hour,” she said. “It’s really hard to live that way. There are so many things you have to take into account.”
The poverty simulation was “very eye opening to me,” she said. “Some of the kids I coach go through this, and there are a ton of kids in the community who go through this. So, anything I can do to help I’m definitely willing to do that.”
Mark Mason, who played the role of 8-year-old Chad Chen — jailed after he succumbed to the lure of seemingly easy money for the family from selling drugs — said the simulation began with laughter and the fun of role-playing, but it grew serious as the significance of it hit home.
“We can laugh, but this is actually really real,” said Mason, who works with Prevent Suicide WV. “People live this life. They struggle with all these challenges on a daily basis. When you’re pressured, you tend to do things out of the ordinary.”
Madeline Dotson, who runs the South Charleston Housing Authority, said it is important to note there are many success stories of families who are able to stay afloat and better their situation, and those stories need to be heard.
At the same time, it is essential to understand the challenges so many people of limited means face, she said.
“This really is very real life. It’s crisis mode most of the time,” Dotson said.
Jennifer Goddard, chief program officer at the YWCA, said she would love to see many more elected officials experience the poverty simulation so they can better understand what so many families experience.
“These were real case studies — until you’ve seen how many layers of red tape you have to go through, you just don’t get it,” she said. “For me, the takeaway is everyone needs to be solution oriented, not just stuck in what their job is, so that people don’t fall through the cracks.”
For Laws, such insights and emotional reactions were the aim of the simulation.
Seemingly simple things — having enough money for gas or to get to a bus to deal with a crisis — can make all the difference in whether a family of limited means can stay afloat.
Repeatedly during the simulation, families were hindered in addressing problems because they could not afford transportation to get to town to deal with them. And so things got worse. Living in more remote areas made it all the more difficult, she said.
“What do you do?” Laws asked. “You need gas. If you do not have a car, you have to have a ride. If you don’t live near a bus line, you have to walk or pay somebody to give you rides. That’s the reality of it. So, that’s why it was so difficult in the simulation.”
Then, there are last-ditch options families in crisis often make use of to temporarily dig out of a financial hole, such as payday lenders, pawning household items, and buying or renting appliances over time.
“If you want a TV, go get one, and we’ll charge $9,000 for that $700 TV over five years,” Laws said. “You’re so desperate that you take advantage of these things that do not help you. They put you further in the hole.”
Many of the parents in the simulation let go of essentials to pay the most immediate bills.
“Health care is the first thing people put behind them in order to pay the bills,” Laws said.
She said Pollen8 offers the poverty simulation to organizations that might wish to host it in their own communities.
“The object of this experience is to sensitize us to the day-to-day realities of life faced by people with low incomes,” she said. “And to motivate us to see them differently and more compassionately, and to become involved in activities which help to reduce poverty in our own communities.”
For more on the poverty simulation, visit www.pollen8solutions.com or contact Laws at 304-389-0803.
In 2017, Pollen8 will offer the program for continuing education units and for annual trainings for magistrates, judges, teachers, lawyers and others.
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“Students” in the poverty simulation undertook a test titled “What do you know about poverty?” Here are several of the questions:
1. The poverty threshold for a family of four in the United States is:
2. Currently, the elderly poverty rate in the United States is higher than the child poverty rate.
3. The overall poverty rate in the United States is higher now than in the 1950s
4. The highest poverty rates in the United States can be found in:
a) Urban areas (cities and suburbs)
b) Rural areas
5. The average annual percentage rate (APR) on a payday loan was:
a) 269 percent
b) 324 percent
c) 400 percent
d) 619 percent
6. U.S. taxpayers spent an unnecessary ______ to receive their tax refunds faster through Refund Anticipated Loans:
a) $2.6 million
b) $960 million
c) $1.6 billion
d) $3.4 billion
7. A worker earning minimum wage would have a full-time monthly salary of:
4. rural areas
5. 400 percent
6. $960 million
(Source: Pollen8, www.pollen8solutions.com)