Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Poverty Simulation

During the week before our winter break we at Region 10 have very little direct interaction with our school districts. During that week each year the 150+ professional staff in the Division of Instruction participate together in 2 days of professional development. This year one of those days was spent in a poverty simulation exercise.

Nearly 1 of every 4 kids enrolled in Texas schools lives in poverty; that percentage is even higher in urban areas. The poverty simulation was designed to build better understanding of the issuses faced by the families of these students, and of the systemic forces that combine to place formidable obstacles in their paths to success in school.

Several staff members were assigned roles in the various institutions within the community: a hospital - the primary employer, a bank, a check cashing store, a grocery store, a pawn shop, a convenience store, a school, a social services agency, a landlord, etc. As they entered the room, everyone else was given a card with the name, age, and gender of the character they would play and assigned to a table along with the rest of the members of his or her 'family'. At the table was an envelope with all the details about the family and its situation, along with various resources that the family had accumulated.

The objective for each 'family' in the simulation was to survive for a month - the simulation consisted of four 25-minute 'weeks', with a 5-minute 'weekend'. During the course of the 'month' the family faced the issues that the poor deal with on a regular basis - low-wage jobs/unemployment; inflated costs for food, accessing cash, and transportation; lack of health care; child care; shelter; plus those unexpected things that seem to occur on a regular basis.

I will talk about my experience in the simulation in another post, but for now I will mention a couple of observations from the simulation.

The first is that it costs more to live when you are poor. When your only viable food options are convenience stores and fast foods, the purchasing cost is higher and the health cost is higher. When you don't have enough money to meet the minimum requirements for a bank account, you either pay higher fees to the bank or you are forced to use check-cashing stores or payday loan services where the fees are usurious. When you can't afford reliable transportation your job options are limited to those locations served by public transportation. When you work in a low-paying job the chances are great that you don't have health insurance provided; in turn, it cost more to access the health care system for routine or emergency care because you bear the entire cost rather than a co-pay. The list goes on...see this chart in Business Week for more examples.

The second is that when you are poor it requires a tremendous amount of energy and resilience just to survive, let alone try to improve your station. The obstables are great and the resources few. And just when you think you are beginning to make a little progress, some unforeseen expense comes along to put you further in the hole. There are few, if any safety nets, and sometimes there is no amount of hard work and determination that is enough to maintain your situation, let alone improve it.

A third observation is that poverty is a self-perpetuating cycle. Let me give one small example from my own simulation. Keep in mind that I am well-educated and well-intentioned, and am well aware of the role that fathers have instilling values and expectations in their children. In the simulation I was the father of 3 children - the oldest was a school aged daughter who wanted me to help with homework and excitedly wanted to show me what she had done in school. I was so concerned with trying to keep a roof over our heads that I did not have the time to interact with her - I did not ignore her as part of my role assignment, it was the natural condition in which I found myself. Think about the implications of how that plays out over and over in the real world of poverty...

No comments: