Community Action lets Provo residents experience a poverty simulation

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As Courtney Bankhead opened her assigned packet, she learned that for the next hour, she would be a single parent struggling with poverty. As others opened their packets, they took on a variety of new identities, including an older brother in charge of taking care of his younger siblings, a single mother without a home or job, and a child with both parents in jail.

Courtney Bankhead of Orem visits the bank during a poverty simulation at Provo Library on May 15. Photo by Erica Azad.
Courtney Bankhead of Orem visits the bank during a poverty simulation at Provo City Library on May 15. (Photo by Erica Azad)

Community Action Services and Food Bank held a poverty simulation Wednesday at the Provo City Library to give Provo residents a chance to experience struggles the impoverished must deal with daily. Craig Severinsen, the communications director at Community Action Services, led the event.

“During this, keep in mind the example of something like an apple,” Severinsen said. “An apple means so much more than a snack to those in poverty. It means hope and relief from hunger.”

At the beginning of the event, each person was given a packet with their new identity and their family assignment. Some were lucky enough to also be given a job or a home. Others had some possessions like a car or a television. Each packet also had the bills they needed to pay and descriptions of issues they may have to face, like mobility problems, disease or limited English language experience.

The event simulated one month of living in poverty, with each week lasting seven minutes. The time limit made the list of tasks for families to complete stressful, simulating the stress of life. If someone didn’t make it to the grocery store on time, they would have to go the weekend without food.

Families had to scramble to pay bills, find employment, work, take kids to school, buy food and meet with social workers during each seven-minute period. The room was filled with mock businesses led by volunteers, including a bank, a pawn shop, a utilities company, a mortgage company, a daycare and a grocery store.

Volunteers who ran the mock businesses were encouraged to run their businesses as if it were real life. Devin Western from Washington, D.C., is a database manager at Community Action Services. During the simulation, he owned the pawn shop.

“For people to get a realistic experience, we treat it like a real-life business. I can be shady if I want to be, like many real pawn shops,” Western said. Many people experienced this firsthand as they received 20–40% of what they expected from selling their possessions to the pawn shop. Even if they thought it was unfair, many people had to sell their possessions to survive.

Although options like social services, community action and interfaith services were open along with the other mock businesses, many families didn’t have time to ask for help.

“I was just trying to get by. I didn’t have time to get help or think of ways to better my life,” Bankhead said. This pressure to survive represented how the poor are often unable to find the time and the resources to improve their life conditions.

Maribelle Rees, from Spanish Fork, was assigned the identity of a 10-year-old girl in the simulation. During the third week of the simulation, the school shut down for spring break, so Rees was left at home all week, having to go some days without food.

“I felt like I had to take on a lot of responsibility as a 10-year-old. We were always waiting. It was really heavy,” Rees said. Other participants who played children in the simulation felt the same way. Some of them had to find jobs like babysitting to help their families survive.

Participants dealt with real-life stressors, such as having to pay for all transportation to and from the mock businesses, long waits for a chance to talk to social workers, businesses attempting to defraud customers and struggles with law enforcement. “Luck of the draw cards” were also randomly passed out, symbolizing random life events that cannot be planned for but still may cost money.

When asked how they would describe the simulation experience, almost everyone agreed that it was stressful. Scarlet Uda, from Pleasant Grove, felt as if the simulation was real.

“I was running around trying to take care of my family,” Uda said. “I wasn’t acting. I was really frustrated.”

At the end of the event, Severinsen led a discussion about what was learned and what people can do to help those experiencing poverty.

“Choose an organization that resonates with you and get involved,” Severinsen said. “Help people understand that the poor are dealing with a lot and they deserve respect.”

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