The staff at Alabama Possible, a nonprofit group that aims to reduce the number of poor people in the state, can easily rattle off the stunning statistics about poverty in Alabama – for example, there are roughly 900,000 people living at or below the poverty level here, and about 28 percent of the children in the state are poor.
But what executive director Kristina Scott and the others who work for the resource center want people to understand is the emotional impact being poor has on a person or a family, so the group hosts periodic poverty simulations that let people briefly walk in a poor person’s shoes.
About 45 people took part in the group’s most recent poverty simulation, held at Samford University’s Wright Center.
Upon arrival, the participants were given a fictional identity of a person living in poverty, a packet that included details about the individual’s or family’s life, and an envelope of play money or a benefits check that represented the person or family’s monthly income.
“It seems like a game with the play money, but this is based on real statistics,” Scott told the group.
During the simulation, participants had four 12-minute rounds that approximated one week of living for the characters they inhabited. During those 12-minute rounds, the characters had to go about their regular day, either working or going to school all while trying to stay financially afloat.
For the simulation, there were resources available to the characters: the department of social services was there to provide food benefits; a community action group offered temporary emergency housing and relief; there were also a bank, a pawn shop, a pay day loan and check-cashing service, a grocery store, a police department and a housing shelter. But there were also common limitations to the resources offered: the homeless shelter could only provide housing for two weeks in a month, banks and check-cashing businesses charged hefty fees for their services and poor people faced long lines and wait times to be seen by the department of social services.
As a former employee of the Alabama Poverty Project – what is now known as Alabama Possible — Robyn Hyden was familiar with the tough situations many poor Alabamians face. But Hyden admitted she was not prepared for the emotions she experienced as she took the hour-long simulated walk in a poor person’s shoes.
“I’ve seen a lot of people in these situations, but it was very emotional to go through those situations in the simulation.”
Hyden stepped into the shoes of fictional character Stella Smith, an 85-year-old widow who was evicted from her home and living in a homeless shelter. Stella received monthly social security benefits of about $552, and her only other possessions were a television and jewelry she saved after losing her home. Stella had adult children, but they offered no help for the woman.
Beyond those specifics, Hyden had to make her own choices for Stella that would hopefully get her out of the homeless shelter and into housing.
During the simulation, Stella managed to apply for and receive nearly $300 in monthly food assistance, but the elderly woman was also robbed of most of her income, had to pawn $100 worth of jewelry (for which she only received $40), failed to get the medicine and healthcare she needed in a timely manner and ended her month still homeless.
“I was surprised at how embarrassed I felt ending up still homeless at the end of the simulation,” Hyden said.
Hyden, who works as a community organizer for Alabama Arise, said the simulation felt real at times when she observed at how people looked at her, or more specifically her character, Stella. “I felt the participants would look at me with pity or disgust,” she said. “This does make you understand how dehumanizing it is to be poor.”
Hyden was not the only participant to take the fictional circumstances to heart. Angela Moore portrayed a 9-year-old boy being raised by his 20-year-old sister after their parents had abandoned them. The elder sister worked and was in school, but was also charged with caring for her younger sister and an infant daughter.
Moore said she was taken aback at the end of the simulation when she found her fictional family had been evicted. “I felt helpless,” she told the group at the end of the simulation.
The other participants expressed similar frustrations — “It was a constant struggle,” said one; “All the help we received was only a Band-aid,” said another; “There was constant stress and no time for leisure activities,” said a third — as they saw their fictional characters face a month of challenges that included utilities being disconnected, an 8-year-old child spending time in juvenile for being caught with a gun and a father fruitlessly searching for employment.
Hyden said the simulation was a good teaching tool to help social work students, or any social service provider, learn what those in poverty are up against. “You can’t judge someone until you have been in their situation,” she said. “This was a temporary exercise, but it does make you understand what the poor face.”