Let’s pretend that we’re in the top 1 percent. What shall we do today?
Fly the Gulfstream jet to Cannes for the weekend? Host a Super PAC hunting party? Kick it on a yacht with gold–plated toilets while a staff in full livery feeds truffles to a stable of dressage horses?
Fun, right? Now let’s take off those Gucci loafers and pretend we’re in the bottom 25 percent.
Oh, please. Who wants to fantasize about being poor?
Apparently, plenty of you. Over a hundred people signed up for last Thursday’s Poverty Simulation at the Civic Center, which goes to show that empathy can be as interesting as an offshore bank account. Only about half of those actually arrived due to some terrifying weather, but Step Up Savannah proceeded.
The quarterly community action event—open to the public—is just a small part of Step Up’s arsenal against poverty, which also includes job training, benefits assistance and collaboration with over 80 other local social service organizations.
I’ve been curious for years about these poverty simulations, not because I think imitation destitution sounds like a good time, but I wanted to dig into notions about Savannah’s persistent poverty problem.
Why, with so many services available, are over 34,000 of us still poor? Will cutting welfare fix America’s budget ills or choke a necessary part of a civil society? How possible is it really to pull oneself up by one’s tattered bootstraps?
Data released this time last year revealed that one in four Savannahians subsists under the poverty line, defined as a yearly income of $22,000 for a family of four, up three percent from the last census. Many more hover in the “working poor” zone of under $40,000 a year. But dry numbers don’t tell much of a story.
“Statistics don’t necessarily stick,” says Suzanne Donovan, Step Up’s Communication Director. “These simulations help people get it on a emotional level.”
After a stern reminder that “this is not a game,” everyone broke up into “families” of three or four. I sat down with Nicole Hobbe, a graduate student in mental health counseling at South University, here to learn more about the people she’ll be helping in her career. Also in our “home” were Asia Coles, a junior at Woodville–Tompkins and Kayla Smokes, a sophomore at St. Vincent’s Academy, both Chatham County Youth Commissioners participating as a required part of their community service.
Together we were the Xanthos family, two immigrant grandparents raising their grandchildren since their mother was incarcerated for drug use.
Encouraged to mix up our assignments as much as possible, Asia took on the role of Grandma Zelda, a full–time cashier making minimum wage. Kayla was Anthony, the disabled grandfather in his 50s with no high school diploma.
Nicole played 9 year–old Zoe, and I stepped about as far out of my comfort zone as I could as Xerxes, a 7 year–old boy with ADHD described as “a handful.”
We were given a packet containing transportation cards, Social Security IDs and a few items that we could hock like a camera and some jewelry. Other families got EBT cards and cash. Everyone had four 15–minute weeks to secure food and pay the bills without getting evicted.
Adding up our resources and our expenses before the call–and–response signifying the start of Week One, we came to the gut–punching realization that we were already $24 in the hole.
“Sell the jewelry, Grandpa,” commanded Zoe/Nicole.
Us kids had to attend Realville Public School, where I slipped through the cracks as a behavioral problem because my grandparents couldn’t afford my ADHD medication. At the end of the “week,” we reconvened to find that Grandpa had pawned our stuff but had run out of transportation passes to go buy food.
“This is stressful,” panted Grandpa/Kayla. “Do my parents have to figure all of this out?”
We found out that we could have gone to Interfaith Services for help, and Grandma/Asia expressed frustration that we weren’t made aware of available resources. “Plus, it’s not fair that the person with the most disabilities is the one with the most responsibilities.”
We were learning fast that life’s not fair, and even less fair when you’re poor.
The next weekend brought some relief when an exhausted Grandma/Asia brought home a paycheck, but still no food. At least we were doing better than the Perez family next door, who had planned to sell their TV and fridge but got robbed.
Week Three brought a school vacation, and our grandparents locked us in the house because there was no money for childcare. Still, a drug dealer pushing packets of Sweet N Low managed to get in. Someone from the Friendly Utility Company shut off the electricity because Grandpa had paid the bill too late.
The grown–ups finally brought home food and medication, but we didn’t have enough money to cover the mortgage.
The problems piled up faster than they could be managed, and we returned from Week Four to find our chairs tipped over. In spite of the hustling, we’d been evicted.
“At least the lights are on,” sighed Grandpa/Kayla.
In the debriefing led by Step Up Executive Director Daniel Dodd–Ramirez, we found out only one family had been able to survive the month. Many had resorted to crime, shaking down their neighbors when the money ran out. Others, like Grandpa Xerxes, had spent too much time in the wrong lines and became overwhelmed.
“You can see that people spend an extraordinary amount of time just trying to get basic services,” he said, adding that in spite of available resources, obstacles like public transportation schedules, lack of education, unhelpful gatekeepers and “easy” high–interest check cashers keep people stuck in a frustrating whorl.
Dodd–Ramirez explained that the cycle affects our entire society in the form of an undereducated workforce and rampant crime. Take away the umbrella of social services, and we’re already there.
I still know as little about the struggles of being truly poor (to paraphrase Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “How can you expect someone who’s warm to understand someone who’s cold?”) as I do about how rich people spend their weekends. (Champagne hot tubs? Touring diamond mines? Who knows?)
But I came away from the Step Up simulation with the keen understanding that poverty is everyone’s problem.
Savannah’s economic issues more or less mirror America’s. As wealthy politicians talk dramatic slashes to social services budgets and austerity measures, I wonder if they might not benefit from an afternoon pretending to be poor.
To find out about the next Poverty Simulation, go to stepupsavannah.org.