If you’re a single parent who is looking for a job and doesn’t have family nearby or money for a babysitter, do you sell the TV to buy groceries? Or do you keep the TV to occupy your school-age kids while you’re at job interviews?
Those are the types of questions 35 Lowell-area residents grappled with on Monday morning as they participated in a poverty simulation workshop run by Access of West Michigan. Participants gathered at the First Baptist Church of Lowell and were split into groups representing different scenarios, such as a single parent with young children or a husband and wife with teens.
The simulation was broken up into four 15-minute periods with each period representing one week of life in poverty. The goal for each participant was to ensure that their family was fed, bills were paid and utilities were kept on for the entire month.
Volunteers spread out across the church gym and represented various agencies, community resources and businesses, which participants could visit for assistance – but only if they had a transportation pass. Available resources included a check cashing service, health clinic and a pawn shop in addition to government offices.
“We all agreed the process was horrible,” said participant Kathy Ormiston during a final debriefing session. “It’s a nightmare to think you [have to] go to 10 different places and get everything you need. You are just all consumed with getting stuff done.”
That was one of the messages Cindy Nawrocki, the poverty simulator coordinator, had for participants: poverty is exhausting. “People are out there working really hard, but the wages are so low and the rent is so high,” she said.
In a normal, non-pandemic year, Nawrocki and her team of volunteers hold more than a dozen simulation workshops across the state. They say the events have resulted in real changes by organizations that have participated, and Nawrocki says she hopes the Lowell participants will take the lessons they learned and use them to make a positive difference locally as well.
Event Hosted by Flat River Outreach Ministries
Monday’s event was held at the request of Flat River Outreach Ministries, and many of the attendees were FROM staff and volunteers. However, the event was open to representatives of other organizations as well.
Wendie Preiss, executive director of FROM, invited Access of West Michigan to Lowell, noting that poverty isn’t something that only happens in big cities. “This is the daily life experience of the people we are serving,” she told Lowell’s First Look after the event.
While the poverty simulation provided only a short peek into the lives of those struggling to afford basic necessities, Preiss hopes it will help deepen empathy for those who live with this reality day-after-day.
Cultivating empathy is a significant part of the poverty simulation experience. “It shows people what it’s like,” explained volunteer Toriey Edwards, “all that time and effort.”
Many of the volunteers who helped at the event either have or are living in poverty, and having a job is no guarantee that someone will have enough money to afford a place to live and put food on the table. When someone does apply for assistance, the stigma that comes with using that aid can be dehumanizing.
“It’s so demeaning,” said one volunteer about the experience of using a Bridge Card to pay for groceries. Bridge Cards are distributed by the state to purchase food and access cash assistance, if applicable. “[People] look at you like you’re so small,” she said.
Another volunteer, Candice Diekema, noted that it isn’t just those who are homeless who need assistance, and people should ask for help sooner rather than later. “[I want them to know] how important it is to reach out to these resources before they get to a homeless situation,” she said.
Poverty Simulation Helps Spur Changes
“Enlightenment” is one thing the poverty simulation seeks to provide, according to Nawrocki, and she says they have seen positive changes as a result of these events.
As an example, she points to a legislator who said he would vote differently on a child care bill as a result of the simulation. Meanwhile, a public library changed the time limit policy on its computers when it learned that people needed them to apply for jobs online, a task that isn’t quick for those who have limited experience with technology.
A poverty simulation also led Metro Health to change its policy on late arrivals, Nawrocki says. Previously, the hospital automatically required those who showed up late to reschedule their appointments. Once they realized how difficult transportation was for some families, it instead started to make an effort to work those appointments in later in the day if possible.
“We’ve seen some really good results,” Nawrocki said.
At the end of the Lowell event, there was discussion about what families in poverty need most. Housing, employment and fresh food were among the top three items mentioned. When it was asked whether job fairs could help or if people knew about local manufacturers who were hiring, that led to a conversation about how these jobs might not be accessible to everyone.
Some jobs require a high school diploma and even for those who have one, reliable transportation can be a problem. Nawrocki added that there is a very real possibility that some job candidates may be passed over simply because of their names. She noted that she has a relative who has a first name that “sounds black” so she has taken to using her more “white-sounding” middle name whenever she submits a job application.
As the event wrapped up, one volunteer said the discussion at the end was one of the best she had heard, and she appreciated that participants wanted to understand more deeply the types of issues and obstacles facing those who live in poverty. She noted, “The conversation at the end came from a real place.”
To make a difference in Lowell, consider volunteering for FROM or another area non-profit. You can complete a FROM volunteer form online to indicate your interest.