4 Weeks in Poverty

Experiencing a poverty simulation.

Friday, March 10th. Aaron had invited us to attend a poverty simulation, and both Doug and myself accepted. So began our little company field trip westward from downtown Indianapolis to Hendricks County.

This particular poverty simulation was organized by Family Promise of Hendricks County, the Hendricks County Food Pantry Coalition, and Purdue HHS Extension. Donations by the Hendricks County Community Foundation and Duke Energy made the event free to attend.

We arrived a little early at the Hendricks County Fairgrounds & Conference Complex. After signing in, I received my new identity — Winona Wiscott.

Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

The Wiscott Family

Let’s first get acquainted with our (fictional) family:

  • Warren Wiscott, 52: Unemployed, stay-at-home grandfather. Has diabetes and mobility problems. Receives a $500 disability check each month. Receives insurance through Winona’s workplace.
  • Winona Wiscott, 50: Grandma. Works as a cashier at the local General Store, earning $9.50/hour. Drives a car to get around. Limited English proficiency. Receives insurance through work.
  • William Wiscott, 9: Goes to school. Abandoned by father, mother is incarcerated for drug possession, lives with mother’s parents. Recently diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Uninsured.
  • Whitney Wiscott, 7: William’s better-behaved little sister. Uninsured.

Household at the start of the month: Own a house, paying off the mortgage. Paying off a loan for the car. Do not currently receive food stamps or other assistance (apart from the disability check). Do not have a bank account. Do not have legal guardianship of grandchildren. We start off with a little bit of cash, some transportation ‘tickets’, Warren’s disability check, and social security cards for everybody.

The families gather. Photo Credit

The simulation format: We get 5 minutes of discussion and ‘strategizing’ with our family at the beginning of each week. The ‘week’ then runs for 15 minutes. Around the hall were various locations such as Grade School, the General Employer, the Supply Center (for food, medicine, clothing), Social Security, the Bank, Payday Loans, the Clinic, the Utility Company, and a few other similar stations. These were run by volunteers who had their own sets of rules and instructions. A friendly police officer patrolled the area (a police officer both IRL and in the simulation). Like reality, we weren’t told from the outset what help or assistance were available for our families, and neither were we told where we needed to go to do things.

Week 1: …Or Worse, Expelled.

I, Winona, started off the month with one goal in mind: Work, earn money, and make sure that the family had food on the table and a roof over their heads. Ergo, my first stop was the General Employer to work.

As a longtime employee (3 years), it didn’t seem that my manager had any issues with me. I completed paperwork to simulate the time I was at work, and received my first week’s paycheck. So far, so good.

Right after leaving work, however, I received a visit from the police officer; My grandson, William (with the ADHD), had stirred up so much trouble at school that he was expelled. For the entire year. **** ****. The Wiscotts are off to a great start.

Warren and I picked up Whitney and the newly-expelled William from school. Warren takes the kids to a clinic to get medication for William, while I head off to run errands. Problem: I don’ have a bank account. It followed, then, that I had to go to Payday to get my check cashed. After losing 2% of my paycheck for the service, I purchased 2 weeks’ worth of food and clothing for the month. Having a car is a lifesaver and placed us in a better spot than most families, who had to invest time and money into public transportation tickets.

Week 2: Turning Things Around?

We entered the second week with some cautious optimism: All things considered, we weren’t doing too bad. Warren had gotten an appointment scheduled at the clinic for William and himself, and Whitney could still go to school. I, ever studious, went straight to work.

Work has gotten busier. My manager, apart from supervising two full-time employees, now had her hands full managing a line of people applying for jobs. I felt some pity for the applicants (some of whom were back to apply again, having already visited in the first week), but kept my head down and finished my work. Time = money.

Payday generously accepted my paycheck and Warren’s disability check at a 1% fee this time, much to my surprise (“I’m feeling generous”, the manager said). Not only did I pay off our utilities bill, we received a voucher to lower the cost as well. Things were really starting to look up. We were guaranteed water and electricity for the month! Hip-hip, hooray!

What about Warren and kids? Dear reader, our little hyperactive William (played by a boisterous lady who was very much enjoying the roleplay), spent the first fortnight greeting me with a hug and a shout loud enough for the entire town to hear:


We had some problems getting medical assistance for William due to the lack of legal guardianship. We did, however, manage to buy just enough medication for both Warren (insulin) and William (ADHD). We also had an upcoming appointment with Social Security the following week to apply for food stamps. Every little bit helps.

Week 3: **** Hits the Fan. (Of course.)

It’s spring break, so Warren rests at home with the grandkids. After work, we all drive to Social Security together.

Huge mistake.

Before we could even go to a counter, I had to fill out paperwork at the reception. Identical paperwork to what Warren had filled out the previous week. Oh, bureaucracy. I (Winona) also have poor English, so this is a struggle.

Once that’s complete, we headed in to our appointment. I tongue-twisted my way through it, struggling to get my points across, while Warren patiently tried to help. We spent a lot of time jumping through hoops, only to be told that (1) Not having legal guardianship complicates things, and (2) Our household earned too much to qualify for assistance.

WHAT?! My pay is barely above minimum wage!

Worst of all, this blow coincided with the bell that signaled the end of the week. I’ll be honest; As the sole breadwinner and leader of the family, I felt like complete and utter crap. At the end of Week 3, we had:

  • No assistance from Social Security
  • No food on the table (Remember, I only bought food for the first 2 weeks)
  • Not paid the mortgage
  • Not paid the car loan

To top it all off, we received a luck-of-the-draw card: One of our windows was smashed. We needed to scrounge up money to fix it, or else our utility bill would go up the following month.

A sole ray of light: The medication had kicked in, and William started to behave better.

Week 4: We’re Going to Make It!

I receive a knock on the ‘door’: The bank was here, expecting payment for the car. Thankfully, I have enough cash on hand not to lose the car. That would be bad.

I was also determined not to lose my job, so I did that first. However, when I went to cash my final two paychecks, Payday decided to take a 10% cut. Just ’cause. At this point, I realized I should’ve at least tried to open a legitimate bank account. Too late, now.

“Times are bad”

Warren and William pawned off our camera and our second television (who needs two, anyway) for some extra cash. Between that and my final two paychecks (sans the 10% cut), I was able to pay off the mortgage, purchase food, and fix the broken window. In fact, we were now sitting on more money than we had at the beginning of the month! We made it!

I was physically wiping off my cold sweat at this point.

Looking Back

Although we made it through the month, the truth was there was no guarantee we would make it through the next. If any of the following happened, the Wiscotts could very well end up on the streets:

  • A member of the family falls ill — especially disastrous if it’s Winona, the sole breadwinner
  • Winona loses her car to an accident or unpaid loan
  • The General Employer decides to downsize, automate, relocate, or just straight-up replace ol’ Winona
  • Taxes go up or assistance goes down
  • A natural disaster or a robbery (or any other possible calamity, really) happens

Other critical questions: Were we buying groceries and cooking each day, or getting by on McDonald’s? How would we make up for William’s lost year of education? What kind of kids are they interacting with at school? What would happen if one or both of their parents showed up? How do you simulate the quality of upbringing you’re providing to a child?

Reflection. Photo Credit

Though I personally didn’t resort to crime or duplicity in the simulation (I was too busy scrambling to even think about it), others did. One took some cash he had seen lying on a table; He felt pressured to take it, because his ‘parents’ were constantly fretting about having enough money for food. I found out in Week 4 that my own family had lied to Social Security, saying we did not receive a disability check (when we most certainly did).

“You did WHAT?!” — Me, entering full grandma mode.

I can also see how frustrating it is to deal with bureaucracy and paperwork — I’ve done my fair share myself, but I have time and patience; If time is money, neither time nor patience are things you have plenty of. What if you’re an immigrant, with a poor grasp of English? Good luck to you.

All in all, it was one hell of a stressful ride. As the person both earning and handling the bulk of the money, there was a lot of pressure on me to get the family through the month. My mind was driven by nothing other than numbers: Do we have enough? What do we need to pay for right now? What can we put off until later? Do we have enough? Do we have enough?

Do we have enough?

Poverty in America

Poverty Rate by County (2012). Map Source

Truth be told, what my little fictional family and I went through was but a snapshot of what 43,100,000 Americans (2015) go through each and every day.

That’s 43.1 million. 43.1 million people scrambling to put food on the table.

Most are not there due to a single event, or by choice. It’s systemic. When you live life week-by-week, doing just enough to scrape by, what hope do you have that you or your children or their children will ever break out of the cycle? Do you have time to hope?

How can you and I help?

A list from the Missouri Association for Community Action (abbreviated and edited by myself):

  • Commit — Promise yourself that you are going to take action to make a difference in the lives of people who experience poverty not just for an hour, but every day.
  • Educate — Tell your family and friends about what you’ve experienced, and present what you learned to a wider audience.
  • Volunteer — Identify local organizations that are helping those in poverty, and find out what you can do to help. Otherwise, gather like-minded volunteers to start your own project to make a difference.
  • Write — Contact government officials, newspaper editors, local businesses, etc. to advocate and win support for policies and programs that can improve the lives of the low-income.
  • Socialize — Make it a habit to stray out of your comfort zone and meet people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, so you can learn to relate to others different from yourself.

Every little bit counts. At the very least, learn about local resources that could help a family in need. Sometimes, we just need someone to help point us in the right direction.

I write for practice, for reflection, and for fun. Click me to learn about me, click me to learn what we’re building at Multiply, and do click if you enjoyed reading. :)