Anthony Flint

To start, it was a far more sobering experience than I expected.

BALTIMORE—I must admit I was hesitant when I saw it on the agenda for the New Partners for Smart Growth conference here: "Poverty Simulation, 2-5 p.m." How could this not be contrived or voyeuristic, somehow? I signed up nonetheless.

The role-playing exercise, choreographed by the Missouri Association for Community Action and supported by Kaiser Permanente, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Local Government Commission, turned out to be a vivid experience, focused on how stressful it is to be poor in U.S. cities.

Before entering the room I chose from an array of face-down cards and drew the role of Helen Harper, a 19-year-old single mother, living with a boyfriend in a homeless shelter with a 1-year-old child, Harvey. A high school dropout, never employed, with aspirations to go back to school someday, I received $278 a month in TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits and $150 in food stamps.

Monthly obligations soaked up that income up fast: $145 for renting a mobile home, plus $90 for the lot; gas and electricity, over $200 a month; and roughly $175 for food, clothing, and miscellaneous expenses. My boyfriend (played by a kind soul from a Baltimore community development corporation) made $936 a month, but took home a little over $500 after taxes and wage garnishes for child support for a kid previously fathered with someone else. He owned an old car that frequently needed expensive repairs. It was all too much, and we got evicted from the mobile home for non-payment of rent, and ended up in the shelter.

In the simulation, as the clock started—weeks compressed into minutes, to get the business of everyday life done—we launched into our goals: to find a place to live, because the homeless shelter required us to vacate after two weeks, and for me to find a job. That required finding day care for Harvey, as I went to interviews, and ultimately if I was lucky enough to find work.

Everywhere I went I needed to submit a $1 transportation card. An interfaith service agency was my first stop, to line up child care, which was $80 a week. But there’s a waitlist. I leave my name but they also want a phone number and I don't have a phone—I didn't think to jot down the number for my shelter, and I'm unsure if they even take messages there. I go to an employment center and fill out a form, again running into the phone number problem. The only possible hope, given my lack of education and employment record, is an opening for a cafeteria worker, for which there are many other applicants.

Cutthroat bill collectors at the Missouri Association for Community Action's poverty simulation in Baltimore. (Anthony Flint)

Upon returning to the shelter, I see a strongly worded notice from the state saying I needed to get to the family services agency immediately to re-certify my benefits, or risk losing them. So the next day I head there, Harvey, hungry and irritable, in tow, and find a long line. I must fill out a detailed form, and the counter closes just as I go to submit it. I’m told to come back the next day.

And that’s about when I realize I haven’t even budgeted time to shop for anything resembling healthy food for the family.

Soon the two weeks was up, and we had to leave the shelter. We pleaded for more time, but those were the rules. I’m feeling a pit in my gut, the calling card of stress—increasingly anxious and irritable. The time management and organizational skills to get out of this mess required such focus and discipline, and mentally, it was hard to stay at the top of my game.

Barriers sprung up constantly, to test me. Transportation, in particular, was make or break. If the bus or the subway was late, it could be the difference between submitting a form on time, or for my boyfriend, being at work at the start of the shift. Employers seemed eager to dock pay, send him home or fire him, for being 15 or 20 minutes late.

In terms of the exercise, I flailed and failed. In real life, had Helen not been much more organized, she would have very likely found herself out on the street on a cold winter’s night.

Michelle Bland, manager of educational theatre at the Kaiser Foundation, stressed that the simulation was indeed based on real life scenarios from careful research, not anything made up to make it seem more dramatic. Helen was based on a real person, in a city like Baltimore.

Bland's first experience with the simulation was putting students through it who were studying nursing, criminal justice, or social services, to show them the day-to-day experiences of individuals living with low income. It was a natural move to extend the exercise to planners and others involved in citybuilding, especially in Legacy Cities such as Baltimore, where small pockets of prosperity are surrounded by struggling neighborhoods.

Too often the residents of these areas are seen as “in the way” of regeneration, said Scot Spencer, associate director at the Center for Community and Economic Opportunity at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. There is almost a sense of frustration when a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats.

Bland, the facilitator of the exercise, says that exasperation stems from a lack of understanding of the grinding details of being poor. Some might ask: “Why can’t you meet that deadline or get that prescription filled? Come on, what’s the problem?”

Spencer, who role-played in the exercise himself, like everybody else was grim-faced leaving the room. “Sobering,” was what he said.

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