Poverty simulation highlights the difficult reality of low-income families

Discouraged. Frustrated. Outmoded. Afraid. Anxious. Depressed.

Every day, families struggling to make ends meet, keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table experience ripples of emotion as they try to cope.

Community leaders, who spent a few hours in the shoes of low-income households during a poverty simulation, echoed those sentiments.

The event was hosted by 64.6 Downtown, 100 Families, United Way of Fort Smith Area and the University of Central Arkansas Center for Community and Economic Development on April 7 at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith.

Members of law enforcement, city and state officials, social workers, nonprofit staff, educators, and other community leaders from across the River Valley came to gathered to learn more about the reality of their constituents, customers and neighbours.

“Really, the big problem is that one hiccup could potentially derail a family for a long time, and that causes an additional spiral,” said Fort Smith manager Neal Martin. “I think I understood that, but to experience that and to see what the results were, it was good to walk around.

The reality of low-income families

Describing the purpose of the event to the group, Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown, said that she and Heather Edwards, coordinator of 100 Families of Sebastian County, “felt like there was something ( what they) could collectively do to bring more attention to … (how) we have a lot of working poor in our community, and sometimes our policies can be changed to facilitate positive change in regards to the barriers and obstacles that ‘they meet.

The Center for Poverty and Inequality Research at the University of California, Davis defines the “working poor” as those “who spend 27 weeks or more per year in the labor force, either working or seeking work, but whose income is below the poverty line.

About 17.9% of Fort Smith residents lived below the poverty line in 2019, with nearly 40% working full-time or part-time, according to the American Community Survey.

Dylan Edgell, associate director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Central Arkansas, explained the simulation to the group, setting the stage for what they were about to experience.

“Your family is struggling, but that doesn’t represent the bottom rung of poverty,” Edgell said. “Most of these roles are not even below the federal poverty level. These are people who live on a month-to-month basis, low-income families.

Edgell added that many Arkansas families fall into the “ALICE” category, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, which means they earn more than the federal poverty level, but are still unable to to meet their basic needs. According to a state-level report, 24% of Arkansas families were ALICE households in 2017.

spend a month

In the simulation, each community leader was assigned along with other participants to represent a family unit ranging from a single person to parents with multiple children.

Each group was given a description of their family members and a budget as well as cards representing different items like money, social security cards, and assets like jewelry and appliances.

Over the course of the month-long simulation, family units had to find or keep a job, buy groceries each week, pay their utility bills and rent or mortgage, receive medical care for different conditions, and take care of their children if they had any.

Each group had to pay for transportation passes to visit different vendors staffed by volunteers – social services, a grocery store, an employment agency, a pawn shop, a medical center, a mortgage office and other businesses and non-profit organizations.

Fort Smith City Manager Lavon Morton (left) and Western Arkansas Counseling & Guidance Center Veterans Court Project Director Mark Allen (right) participate in the poverty simulation at First Presbyterian Church, April 7, 2022. Cards pawned by Morton depicting jewelry and other items to Allen, the pawnshop seller.

Throughout the month, family units pawned items to pay bills and requested assistance from social services. Some were given prison sentences and many were deported at the end of the month.

Rep. Jay Richardson recounted the experience of an elderly single woman who was dependent on Social Security income, trying to afford medications and only having access to public transportation.

“I think some of the things that a lot of people face are having to choose between medicine and food or electricity,” Richardson said. “You don’t have a lot of money, and you have to get help from many organizations that can transfer you to someone else. You only have enough money to get to A and B , but now you’ve got to go to C.”

Rep. Justin Boyd lived the experience of being a single dad with no bank account.

“It’s just a reminder that there are challenges we have, and when you don’t have a savings account, when you don’t have a family that you can fully rely on, it can be difficult to break the cycle of poverty,” Boyd said.

Overturned chairs represent a family unit evicted during the poverty simulation at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, April 7, 2022.

Representative Cindy Crawford went through the experience of being a single mother. Her son had gotten into trouble with law enforcement and her daughter didn’t like going to school.

Crawford described the difficulty of receiving help from the social service provider who only had one social worker, mirroring the challenges of real-world staffing shortages.

“My rent was $300, so they gave me $150 to pay the rent, but we were still evicted because we were going to get more money from (temporary relief for needy families), but that wasn’t soon enough,” Crawford said.

Bridging the gap

Members of the family units were unaware of the resources of the interfaith center and the community action agency, which prevented them from receiving additional assistance with food and shelter during the simulation.

As participants recounted their experiences, it became clear that this situation mirrored real life as they discussed a lack of awareness of community resources.

Shelby Fiegel, director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Central Arkansas (center), leads participants through the poverty simulation debriefing inside the First Presbyterian Church, April 7, 2022.

Going forward, Crawford was inspired to create strategies for young women to learn about community resources outside of social services.

“As a lawmaker, one of the things I would like to do then is look at the juvenile justice system to help those single parents when they can’t be there to make sure their kids stay out of trouble. and somehow work a program instead of prison,” Crawford added.

Representative Jay Richardson stressed that poverty does not discriminate and that red tape and other barriers can place an additional burden on low-income families.

“I think poverty has touched every individual at one time or another, whether it’s themselves, family members or friends,” Richardson said. “It’s definitely an issue in our area, and I’ll continue to work to see how I can continue to help alleviate this.”

Neal Martin, superintendent of Fort Smith (left), and Pat Powell, executive director of Leadership Crawford County (right), participate in the poverty simulation at First Presbyterian Church, April 7, 2022. Martin presented the Notice of eviction from his family unit in Powell, representing the Interfaith Center, to find shelter.

Martin, who was in the same group as Crawford, stressed the importance of education about the help available to communities in need, especially with the impact of inflation.

“One of the things that came out of (the event) was the lack of awareness of the many different tools or resources that people can use,” Martin said. “…I think there’s more education out there, more financial education, better support of where these families go when they’re in crisis…How do we provide them information in a way to help bridge that gap?”

Richardson emphasized the importance of empathy and understanding as the foundation for creating change.

“The thing to remember is that poverty is real, and often times people are forced to make really tough decisions that are considered life or death,” Richardson said. “With that, sometimes bad decisions are made, and you find that people who made bad decisions just end up in a spiral effect of things that really change the course of their lives.”

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