For a few hours, participants in a West Central Missouri Community Action Agency poverty simulation had the chance to experience the struggles that many low income families face every day.
The goal of the event: Survive one month of poverty by developing a game plan to climb out of your situation.
Poverty in Cass County isn’t a taboo matter. It affects more than one-tenth of the population.
“There are many faces of poverty here in Cass County,” WCMCAA Community Services Specialist Kathy Schrock said. “From the smallest child to the most elderly, to many in between.”
Upon arrival to the Harrisonville United Methodist Church June 12, I was given the name tag of 8-year-old Brian Boling. After receiving my new identification, I was escorted by event staff to my new “family” seated in the center of the church’s multi-purpose room for the event.
Around us, about 50 participants from the community grouped into different families and varying living arrangements throughout the room.
West Central serves a nine-county region, including Cass County, and has offices in Belton and Harrisonville. The agency aims to host poverty simulation events in two or three of their counties each year.
“Sudden and unexpected poverty has become a real possibility for almost everyone these days,” Schrock told participants. “With little margin of safety, anyone can fall into poverty with 65 percent of working families living paycheck to paycheck.”
Working out of the agency’s Harrisonville office, Schrock encounters people in need from communities all around Cass County on a regular basis.
According to the 2012 Census Bureau, Schrock said 14.7 percent of Harrisonville population, and 13 percent of people in Belton, lived below the poverty level.
The statistics in Cass County are slightly better than the statewide average, whereas 16.2 percent of Missourians fell below poverty line in 2012.
Poverty is also more common in rural areas than in major urban areas.
My given family’s situation wasn’t nearly as severe as some, but did prove to be challenging to make it through one month in order to keep roof over our heads.
The five of us lived in a three-bedroom home at 206 Westmoreland that came with a $610 monthly mortgage. There were also utility bills, student and car loans, credit card debt and food costs that we’d have to pay for.
As in real life, there were also unpredicted and unbudgeted obstacles that were going to be thrown our way.
Circling the room, WCMCAA employees were positioned at tables to soon offer the services of area agencies and government assistance programs needed for everyday living to the roleplayers at the event.
In our “pretend” community, there was an employer, school, supermarket, a bank, homeless shelter, child care services, a quick loan station, pawn shop, and even a jail.
Our mother, Betty Boling, 39, portrayed by 23-year-old Katie Huffman of Belton, worked as a full-time receptionist for a hospital making $9 an hour, bringing home $1,324 after taxes each month.
The role of the father in our home was given to Ethan Eckert, 21, Harrisonville. He put on the shoes of 42-year-old Ben Boling, who was a computer programmer by trade. Mr. Boling had been employed at the same company for 20 years but was laid off four months prior and has had difficulty finding a new job.
Then there were three kids in our “made up” family - myself playing the role of the youngest child, who was known to always give my 10-year-old brother, Bart, a hard time when he would watch over me when our parents weren’t around. I also had a 16-year-old sister, Barbara, who was seven months pregnant with her lackadasical boyfriend’s baby.
“A student may not have school at the top of their priority list due to large amount of responsibility that they may have at home,” said Schrock, of some of the issues people living in poverty face. “Or maybe it’s an employee who has trouble concentrating at work because her husband just walked out on her and her kids, and taking the paycheck with him.”
Throughout the simulation, every 15 minutes represented one week in time.
As my siblings and I went to school and our mother went to work, I watched my father, through the eyes of a child, to feverishly to pay the bills and keep our family fed on a single income without entirely blowing our $200 in savings.
For our family’s clan, time was of the essence as complications and unexpected financial demands arose along the way, such as needing money for school field trip and long lines at the bank. At one point, we nearly had our utilities cut off.
My family was also given only a limited number of transportation passes that we could use for each trip to work, store, or to get services. The transportation passes represented the costs of needing either public transportation or a personal vehicle.
For the course of a five-week month, families like our own had to figure out what services to access based on our circumstances. By week two, dad was finally able to buy some groceries and paid half of our mortgage.
“Things are getting a little tight,” he said.
A little later in the event, an 85-year-old homeless grandmother in tears showed up at the house requesting for a place to live.
Although our home was already crowded, we decided to go ahead and take in grandma so she could watch my brother and I when we were home from school. Grandma also shared her money, prized possessions that dad would later pawn, along with her unused transportation passes, which helped our parents.
During the third week, our residence received an electric shut-off notice, requiring that a full payment of $75 plus a $50 reconnection fee was due immediately.
By this point, Barbara’s baby is due only in a matter of time, but our dad assures her that he was able to find health care services through one of the agencies at the mock event.
During the final week, Bart and I happen to stumble upon several loose $20 bills laying around the “community.” We give them to dad to help pay the bills.
“You kids are the best,” dad told us.
When the week was up, we counted what we had.
There was still a roof over our head and our lights on. Our stomachs were fed and all the bills had been paid. And come to find out, dad and mom’s quick thinking and good planning at the end of the event put us in the black with $221 left in cash and $25 in savings.
After the simulation was finished, participants sat circled around the room to debrief from the experience.
One woman shared with the group about how the experience brought her to the point of tears from the frustration she experienced after she took on a role in a family.
The simulation allowed participants to experience what so many in Cass County already do - the feelings of helplessness, exhaustion, and emptiness, when they can’t make ends meet.
“It’s so easy for many of us to go through our motions daily without giving thought to the lives or struggles of any one else around - whether they are low income or not,” Schrock said. “I want people to have more of an awareness of people who are in poverty or who are low income in our county.”