Today is Martin Luther King Day, where service events abound. I chose to volunteer at a Poverty Simulation, where I was given the job of being the SuperFood Clerk. Those involved in the simulation had to buy their food, clothing, miscellaneous supplies, and prescriptions through me. Fifteen minutes represents a week, so an hour is a month in the life of the impoverished. There is three goals:
- Keep your family secure with housing.
- Keep your family fed.
- Pay all your bills on time.
To do this, you needed income — the primary way to achieve that was through a job such as full time or part time work, which took up half the fifteen minutes. In the other half, your bills had to be paid, food had to be bought, kids taken care of, and other necessary tasks. However, to go anywhere in the room, you needed a transportation pass. This represented the amount of time it takes to walk there or the amount of gas or the amount of bus fare. If you don’t have transportation passes? Then you are out of luck and could not go anywhere.
Those play-acting the impoverished families were randomly given people to play– one could be the mother, one the father (if the family had one), a few were kids, or an elderly person. Some families had children, and a few were just a single person (often an elderly person). There was a lot of diversity in the simulated families. How each person managed their time was one of the biggest obstacles in the simulation, as many realized too late that time is a precious resource, possibly more so than money, as many families didn’t have enough time in the allotted “week” to do all the tasks necessary to accomplish their three goals. By the end of the simulation, those representing the families were stressed, frustrated, and frazzled. Many of them ran around trying to finish the goals, but unable to figure out how to do it. It was startlingly close to how it truly is in real life. After the simulation ending, we all had a discussion about what we learned. A common thread amongst those involved was they had no idea how much time it took to do things, and how hard they had to work to even do simple tasks such as getting food or paying bills.
One thing I realized is that I’m not the only person who tends to buy food last when it comes to paying all the bills. There was a good thirty people there, who played around sixteen families. Only three of the families bought food consistently each week. A few chose to buy clothing rather than food one week, and still others didn’t come to buy food hardly at all. They decided that rent and the other bills had to come first, and sadly enough, this is far more common than I initially realized.
I know when I had bills to pay and I was on the verge of homelessness, food wasn’t a priority even though it should have been. If it had been, I might have avoided some hospital visits. Worse, if you have food allergies or intolerances, obtaining food becomes ten times as hard. Often going to a food bank resulted in maybe a can of corn, but nothing else was edible for me. The poor and homeless are not immune to having their own food allergies or intolerances and this can affect what they are able to afford to buy.
When you’re impoverished, the decision becomes: “Do I pay rent? Or do I pay for food?” No one should ever have to ask those questions or make that decision, and yet millions of Americans are forced to make that decision on a regular basis.
How are we fighting poverty in our communities? By scaling back resources, by trying to de-fund EBT and other poverty assistance efforts, by banning (in some cities) giving food to the homeless, by putting up homeless spikes, by vilifying the poor and homeless, by calling the poor leaches on society, by giving the poor impossible standards — “pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” — by dehumanizing them.
Anyone can fall into poverty — a sudden illness or an accident or loss of job or a natural disaster or any sort of bad event could cause someone to fall into poverty. And those that have been in poverty for generations? It doesn’t matter how hard they work or fight as minimum wage isn’t enough to live on anymore. Going to college is often a dream that can’t be realized due to its rising costs. It’s hard to find the funds to stay in college, but for those that try anyway, they end up in huge amounts of debt that they struggle to pay off.
My own story mirrors the above, where I have never had a job that paid more than ten dollars an hour, much of my jobs paying much less. It took me years to get through my degree, where I often had to take breaks to work and save up again. In the end, I still had to take out a huge amount of loans, and my degree didn’t land me a living wage at all. I ended up almost homeless, struggling to survive. My story isn’t an outlier, and there’s thousands if not millions of people in similar situations. College degrees often are not the ticket out of poverty that many hope for.
A lot of people in our society try to avoid these terrible and painful truths. How do they avoid them? Doublespeak. Turn those in need into monsters, and then it’s okay to not care about them. It’s okay to destroy their safety net, to ignore their suffering, to cast them under the bus to die. Take away their humanity and then society can look away and breath a sigh of relief. It no longer has to look at the awfulness or acknowledge its truth; society can now pretend it doesn’t exist and get on with life. If those suffering protest, then they are made into comedic relief, painted as ungrateful for the scraps left for them.
Ironically, this same tactic is used on the majority of minority groups: people of color, LGBTQ people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the privileged group within that society. If you turn those who don’t look like you into monsters, it’s easier to ignore the injustice they face, the horrors that mark their days, the discrimination they endure. It’s easier to view their lives as lesser. As not worth as much as your own.
Our society values some lives more than others. And that’s an evil truth many refuse to acknowledge, but until we do, poverty, discrimination, injustice — all of these problems will never go away.