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Kandiyohi County event offers greater insight into lives of the poor

WILLMAR -- The assignment was deceptively simple: Spend an hour living in poverty in "Realville."Participants in a poverty simulation last week scrambled to show up to work on time, pay their bills, buy food, send their children to school and avo...

Poverty simulation
A stuffed doll represents an infant living in a low-income household. The poverty simulation gave participants a glimpse of the daily experience of being poor. (ANNE POLTA | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - The assignment was deceptively simple: Spend an hour living in poverty in “Realville.”
Participants in a poverty simulation last week scrambled to show up to work on time, pay their bills, buy food, send their children to school and avoid losing their housing.
At the end of the hour-long exercise they gathered in a circle to share what they learned.
They used words such as “stress,” “frustration” and “hectic.” But they also used words such as “eye-opening” and “insightful,” which is what the organizers hoped to hear.
The half-day event was hosted by Kandiyohi County to provide a better understanding of the daily experience of the estimated 46.7 million Americans who are poor.
“It’s to try just to walk a day in the shoes of the person who lives in the culture of poverty,” said Charlotte Hand of Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services, who helped organize the simulation.
The simulation, developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, is used nationwide to educate service providers, community leaders and policymakers on the everyday issues faced by those living in poverty.
Heartland Community Action Agency began offering the program about two years ago, said Debi Brandt, community services director at Heartland and one of the trained facilitators who helped lead the event last week at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building.
“It’s to raise awareness. It’s to give us insight. It’s also a call to action,” she said. “People learn so much when you can experience it.”
As the 45 participants signed in, they were assigned a character with a background story and household budget. Roles are drawn from real-life cases, ranging from a woman in her 80s on Social Security to a recently incarcerated 25-year-old whose education consisted of a GED.
Their assignment: Make it through a simulated month while meeting the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and transportation.
The room quickly turned chaotic. Participants bartered frantically for transportation passes enabling them to get to work. They waited in line for paychecks and public assistance. Some had to pawn stereos and jewelry for extra cash.
By the end of the month, half a dozen households were evicted for not paying rent. Two had their cars repossessed. Some lost their job. One family was robbed. Almost no one purchased enough food to stay healthy.
“How did it make you feel?” Brandt asked as the group debriefed afterward.
“Not good,” someone replied.
But the participants also found some bright spots.
“At the end of the month we still had $300,” one person offered.
In another household, the entire family pitched in and “no one yelled,” someone else said.
Knowing what resources are available and how to get help made a difference, the participants agreed.
They also learned that kindness mattered.
“That made a difference to me,” one woman said. “Sometimes it’s that empathy, that listening ear, and giving people a message of hope.”
The dilemmas experienced in the simulation were a mirror of many low-income lives, Brandt said. Last year her four-county agency worked with an average of 130 households a month who were homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless, she said.
Transportation is critical for work, school, shopping for food and obtaining medical care and other services, Brandt said. When poor households, especially in rural Minnesota, don’t have access to reliable transportation, “it actually is a barrier to escaping poverty,” she said.
Heartland provides the simulation to nursing students at Ridgewater College in Willmar and Hutchinson, and surveys conducted before and after the simulations show that the participants have gained a more nuanced view of poverty. They were more likely to recognize they didn’t understand poverty as well as they thought they did and were more aware of the limitations in their skills and their knowledge of community resources.
Hand hopes the insight from the simulation last week will help participants think before jumping to conclusions about the poor.
“Are they demanding or are they desperate? They get misinterpreted,” she said. “It reminds us to remove the judgmental glasses.”

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