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Poverty lessons strike nerve

| Friday, June 1, 2007

Monica Kramer got a taste recently of the frustration of poverty.

Kramer, of Westmoreland Human Opportunities' Head Start program, portrayed a single mother of two teenagers recently whose father had left the family in the fictional town of Realville. It was a role she played in a poverty simulation at the Westmoreland County Assistance Office in Greensburg.

"It was a hard situation," Kramer said. "I had to make it on my own, which was very hard. I would have to go to each agency to see what I could get and what I couldn't get. Then the children got in trouble because I wasn't paying attention to them.

"It was very frustrating because I had to wait in long lines ... and I'm still trying to get food stamps or get some food assistance."

Family scenarios

The poverty simulation was designed to help participants understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family.

Those taking part in the exercise assume the roles of up to 26 different family members facing poverty: from the newly unemployed to a family deserted by the "breadwinner" to the family that receives temporary assistance. The task was to provide for basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute "weeks."

"It's to educate people about the issues and obstacles the working poor face every single day," said Terry Beggy, executive director of Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners, who hosted the recent event with WHO and the assistance office. "Most people have a very visceral reaction. They never realized how difficult it was, how resourceful you have to be and how frustrating it is."

Those cast as adults had to keep their home secure, keep utilities active, make loan payments, feed their families, pay miscellaneous expenses and deal with unexpected situations.

If participants failed to meet these goals, which happened frequently, they suffered consequences, such as being placed in jail or evicted from their homes. An eviction was simulated by turning over the chairs of that "family."

Actions questioned

Greg Stein, who oversees the low-income program for Allegheny Energy, played the role of a 14-year-old. He was shocked at his pattern of behavior.

"The first week I was a decent kid, the second week I was buying drugs, the third week I was selling them and the fourth week I was robbing stores," Stein said. "I know it was role-playing, but I still was surprised at how easily I just slipped right into that instead of going the route other people did who were trying to do it the honest, hard-working way."

While some participants were members of low-income families, others manned tables representing community resources and other services, including a chain store, bank, employer, utility company, pawn broker, grocery, school and day-care center.

Tay Waltenbaugh, WHO's chief executive officer, manned the office of the payday and title-loan facility and did so with a hard edge.

"There's an awful lot of people that prey on low-income families and we represented one of those groups," Waltenbaugh said. "It's a shame to understand the poor credit that people have and the battles you have going to help your family and people like (that) trying to take advantage of you."

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