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Social workers and educators for low-income young families participated in a poverty simulation last week at N.C. Head Start's 40th Annual Training Conference.

Poverty, meet the Sims 

click to enlarge Click for larger image • The thief hides after stealing money from a family. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Overcome with stress and finally lacking the strength to bear her family's dim plight, Betty Boling silenced her three children with a terse jab and put both hands to her temples.

Minutes earlier she had returned home from work to learn that she had been evicted from her three-bedroom home and that the family was huddling together at the homeless shelter until morning.

Her husband, Ben, had been laid off after 20 years as a computer programmer. His unemployment checks, $350 per week, quit coming recently. Her 16-year-old daughter was pregnant, due in two months. Her two boys, ages 10 and 8, were disrupting class and complaining that their parents weren't being attentive enough. After cutting costs, maxing out credit cards and paying just enough to avoid foreclosure every time a collector arrived, the Bolings couldn't make ends meet any more.

Betty, exhausted from working long days as a hospital receptionist and unable to meet basic demands at home, sunk her shoulders and dipped her head like a failure.

Luckily, it was only a test.

Betty Boling isn't a real person. She's a name on a placard in the N.C. Poverty Simulation Experience. The woman clutching her head is Patti Horan, director of Head Start for Asheboro, quite literally playing the cards she was dealt.

Horan was among 60 social workers and educators for low-income young families who participated in the simulation last week at N.C. Head Start's 40th Annual Training Conference at the Raleigh Convention Center.

Facilitators assigned each participant to a "family" as he or she entered the room, and each family received a packet with profiles assigning them names, ages and circumstances to overcome. Folks playing the part of infants were given plastic babies to carry. Khari Garvin, director of the Head Start State Collaboration Office and the administrator for the simulation, told everyone to play their parts authentically, to be impatient if they were children or move slowly if they were elderly.

The simulation included fake money, orange transportation passes representing gas or bus fare and a host of other Monopoly-style trinkets.

The families received green "luck of the draw" cards—some for setbacks like flat tires or unforeseen expenses like money needed for school field trips. Signs along the walls designated the Department of Social Services, child care, the bank, the pawnshop, the grocery store, the homeless shelter, Juvenile Hall and the like, with volunteers behind desks to play the parts of pencil pushers, brokers or bill collectors. One volunteer even filled the role of a criminal who pilfered passes and goods.

The odds against families were impossible. The bank demanded money that the families didn't have and couldn't earn. The pawnshop offered only 30 cents on the dollar, if you were lucky. The town employer delayed reading applications for weeks. Food banks kept limited, unknown hours, and the grocery store sometimes shortchanged customers.

All but one of the 15 families in the experiment had their utilities disconnected. Almost half were evicted, and none of them were able to buy the required food every week.

"Aren't you glad it's not for real?" asked Macy Jones, manager of the state training office of Head Start, as the reflection period began.

It is real, though—maybe not for those in the room but for thousands across the state who don't need to simulate poverty to understand it.

But those who ran the experiment, an idea born in Missouri and expanded last year to North Carolina, and those who attended were adamant that the simulation is motivational, not mocking.

"This isn't a game," Jones said. "Games have prizes. There are no prizes in poverty."

Participants said they gained a better understanding of the anxiety and hopelessness felt by those they serve. They learned how to make better referrals and to better use community action networks, which provide many services but often go unused, Garvin said.

"The frustration level, I didn't realize it was so thick," said Horan, who called the session "the best thing I've ever done."

Yes, folks who deal directly with the impoverished said the three-hour experience of pretending to be poor changed their perspective completely.

"Most of us who work in this field, when we go home at 5 p.m., poverty is not a part of our lives," said Bryan Duncan, who helped run the experiment. "This just allows us to refocus in a different way."

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