You don't want to go there 

You know, being poor really sucks.

Thanks for the news flash, you say. Give that man a Pulitzer.

But the truth is you don’t know how bad the poor really have it until you walk, however briefly, in their worn-out old shoes. I found this out for myself one afternoon last week when I was invited to take part in a role-playing poverty simulation at the Civic Center.

It was, quite simply, a paradigm-shifting experience. While I’ve never been one of those who say poor people bring all their problems on themselves, I did undergo a major change in how I view the struggle of the poor.

The simulation is part of Mayor Johnson’s new Anti-Poverty Task Force, a collaboration of government, business, media, nonprofits and faith-based organizations, all working towards the laudable goal of lifting Savannah’s poor to economic self-sufficiency.

Just one small component of the expansive Task Force agenda, the simulation’s goal is to give the fortunate among us a chance to see what life is like under the poverty line.

And trust me – you don’t want to go there.

The poverty line for a family of four in Savannah is about 18 grand a year. Yes, that’s a family of four. There are at least 27,000 such incredibly unfortunate souls within city limits that fall at or under that level. That doesn’t count the many thousands of working poor on the cusp of the poverty line, living literally a paycheck away from disaster.

The poverty simulation was developed by the Reform Organization of Welfare Education Association of St. Louis, Mo. The University of Georgia has a license to administer the program here, and the simulation I attended was attentively run by well-trained UGA staff -- who kick off the proceedings with a hearty “Welcome to the state of poverty.”

The simulation is a classic role-playing game, but with particularly high stakes. Eviction, illness, crime are all obstacles on the way to victory.

How do you win the game? Keeping your head above water is the best you can possibly hope for. It all goes downhill from there.

I figure if you’re going to play a role, you should really stretch. So I decide to change gender as well as socio-economic status.

I am now an unemployed 31-year-old Hispanic mother of two. My name is Felicia Fuentes. My husband just left me. I have no job, no bank account and no education.

I have a fifteen-year-old daughter named Francesca and a fourteen-year-old son named Franco. If you do the math, you see that I had these children when I was a teenager myself.

Of course I’m not the only one playing the game this day. There are a couple dozen of us all together -- business leaders, community figures and media -- each portraying different people in different phases of poverty.

Some play senior citizens on fixed incomes. Some, like me, are single mothers. Some are grandparents raising grandchildren, a growing phenomenon in poor communities all over the country. Some role-players portray the hapless children of these families.

My own “children” turn out to be John Ihrig, news director of Adventure Radio, who plays Franco, and Jean Iaderosa, director of development for Chatham Area Transit (CAT), who is my little Francisca.

We begin by sitting at three chairs which represent the shabby, overpriced three-bedroom apartment we rent. Ringing the outer edge of the large room are tables with UGA staffers representing various community entities: a bank, a police station, a pawnshop, a school, utilities, a convenience store.

Making things even more difficult -- and realistic -- is the periodic issue of “Luck of the Draw” cards, symbolizing the random unpredictability of life. Lottery ticket or debilitating illness? New grandchild or death in the family? Anything can happen in the luck of the draw.

In my seat is a packet that gives us all the tools and information we need to play this game. Here are the total assets of the Fuentes family:

1) Ten dollars in cash;

2) Cards representing possessions we can pawn, like a TV and a refrigerator;

3) A single “transportation pass” representing the cost and/or time involved in getting where we need to go (additional passes must be purchased);

4) Three Social Security cards as ID.

That’s it.

On the other side of the ledger are the liabilities of me, Felicia Fuentes: A sizeable monthly rent; gas, electric and water bills; and a monthly car payment which I still owe even though my no-good sorry-ass husband took off with the car.

In other words, we’re screwed.

The game is played in three ten-minute weeks. When the whistle blows to begin the first week, I decide to use my one and only transportation pass to get to the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) table to get us some food stamps and some TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, what used to be called welfare).

Luckily, my children don’t need a transportation pass to get to school, since they ride the bus. More on Franco and Francesca later.

At the DFACS table, I have to wait my turn in line. Waiting a long time for things I desperately need will become the dominant motif of my short but intense life in the state of poverty.

When my turn comes I surrender my transportation pass to the secretary, who gives me a ten-page application -- in English only -- to fill out before I can see a caseworker.

When I finally get to see my caseworker, he begins by asking me where my two children are. I tell him they’re in school.

“School’s out for the day, Ms. Fuentes,” he says sternly. “You need to go home now and check on them.”

But I need food stamps more, I tell him. I can’t go home without them.

“That’s too bad,” he says. “The police won’t be too happy when I tell them you’re leaving your children home alone.”

But they’re 14 and 15 years old, I say. Can’t they take care of themselves for one afternoon?

“Oh, okay,” he says. “I guess they’ll be alright for now.”

I’m about to get my food stamps -- but now it’s closing time. “Come back next week,” he says, suddenly all smiles, as the whistle blows signalling the “weekend.”

When I get back to our “apartment,” there’s a card on my seat. It’s an overdue bill for the electricity, gas and water for hundreds of dollars. Hundreds of dollars I don’t have.

Oh well, I think. First things first. The Fuentes family has got to eat.

The whistle blows to begin the second “week.” My game plan this time is to go to the table representing the QuikCash convenience store, use my ten dollars to buy a bunch of transportation passes and hightail it back to DFACS for those food stamps.

Once again, I have to wait in line. A short, nicely dressed UGA staffer comes up behind me with a water pistol. She points it at me politely.

“Give me all of your money,” she says shyly, smiling a little. But still, she’s got that water pistol.

I don’t know what to say. She reaches out and takes the packet out of my hands -- the packet that has all our money, possessions and ID in it.

I’ve been robbed. Of everything. And it wasn’t even a damn “Luck of the Draw” card. I decide to beg the QuikCash lady for a transportation pass.

“I’m sorry. If you’ve been robbed, you have to go tell the police and fill out a report,” she says brusquely.

I walk over to the police table -- cheating, actually, since technically without a transportation pass I can’t even do that much.

I have to wait behind a woman portraying a senior citizen who unknowingly accepted some drugs from a local delinquent. She’s been arrested. The cop says he believes her, but she’ll still have to get a lawyer.

“A lawyer? I don’t know any lawyers,” she tells the cop. “I don’t have money for a lawyer.”

“Sorry,” he says. “Nothing I can do. Don’t make me use these,” he says, gesturing to some toy handcuffs on his desk.

When it’s my turn, I tell the cop what happened. He asks for a description of the woman who robbed me with the water pistol.

“Now what?” I ask. “What do I do? I have no money and no ID.”

“Just go home and wait for an officer to come investigate,” the cop says.

So I walk home -- again without the required transportation pass. I pass Franco, headed in the opposite direction.

“I got robbed,” I inform him, expecting a little sympathy for his dear mom. “They took all our money, our ID, everything.”

But he isn’t impressed. “I’m going to jail,” he responds matter-of-factly.

“What!?” I say.

“I got in trouble and I have to go to juvenile detention.”

My response here is telling. I don’t feel sorry for my son going to juvey. No, not at all. I get mad at him.

“You’re kidding,” I say, shaking my head. “Well, it’s going to be awhile before I can get you out. We’ve got to have some food.”

And pay the rent. And the electricity. And the gas. And the water.

I go back to the apartment to wait for the cops. On the way a staffer hands me a card. It warns that the health department has determined that my children are not getting enough calories or vitamins, and such dietary deficiency could lead to serious physical and mental health problems and difficulties at home and in school.

Screw that, I think to myself, throwing the card down. Tell me something I don’t already know.

Francesca is at home. She has some papers in her hand.

“What’s all that?” I ask, fearful that she, too, is being sent off somewhere.

“It’s a job application,” she says. “I’m trying to get a work permit.”

Ah, well, at least one of my kids has a good head on their shoulders.

There’s a plastic card on my seat, a “Luck of the Draw.” Good news for once. It seems that I, Felicia Fuentes, have scored a “one-time only housecleaning job.” Excellent.

The job pays $50. Not nearly what I need, but it’s fifty bucks more than I have now. The only catch is I have to go to the bank to collect.

Then the whistle blows for the weekend.

I feel good about the week coming up. With fifty dollars I can get some food, try to get a job somewhere and try to start digging us out from under all these friggin’ bills.

I walk to the bank table and wait in line. When it’s my turn, I smile and introduce myself, showing her the “Luck of the Draw” card and explaining that I’d like the $50 that is due me.

“Transportation pass, please,” she says dryly.

“I don’t have one,” I say. “I was robbed. I’ve got nothing.”

“I still need a transportation pass,” she says. “And I’ll need to see some ID.”

“You don’t understand. I was robbed of all my money and all my ID,” I say. “I’ve got nothing except this card. Can I just have my fifty bucks, please?”

She takes a deep breath. Uh-oh. Here comes the attitude. I’m getting used to it by now, so I decide to ride out the storm.

“First of all, Ms. Fuentes, I have to collect a transportation pass from you before I can do anything. Second of all, I can’t give you any money without any ID,” she says, giving me just a little neck roll.

“Third of all, Ms. Fuentes, I see here that you owe us $120 this month for a car payment. So even if I cashed that card I’d just keep the whole $50.”

I tell her thanks but no thanks, and walk off without my money.

At a complete loss, I look around to see if there is some kind of table of last resort, where the truly desperate can get a helping hand.

I walk to the “Community Service”table and explain my plight.

“Looks like you need to establish some ID,” says the nice lady staffing the table. “You need a Social Security office.”

“Where’s that?” I ask hopefully.

She smiles and shrugs.

“What I really need is a church,” I tell her. “I have no hope left. You guys have any church tables here?”

Another shrug and a smile.

I decide to visit Francesca, i.e. Jean, in school. Such a good kid, so quiet and hard-working. She’s making such good grades that a teacher gave her five bucks.

Five bucks she should have given to her mother.

“You’ve been keeping that to yourself?” I ask her. “Are you nuts? I need that to get us some food.”

Francesca is hurt by the accusation, and rightly so. I’m too hard on her. She’s not the one in juvenile detention, after all. But right now money is the only thing on my mind.

This exchange wakes me up, and I decide to walk ten feet to the police table to see how Franco’s doing in juvey.

“What’s up, son? They treating you good in here?”

“Well, yeah, but where have you been? You don’t care about me, or what?” says Franco, i.e. John.

“Look, I’ve got troubles of my own,” I say. “You shouldn’t have got in trouble. I’m trying to get us some food stamps. I got robbed.”

I turn to the cop and ask if they’ve found the robber.

“An officer didn’t come by your apartment?” he asks.

“No, of course not,” I say.

“Well I guess you could talk to someone in the robbery division if they’re here,” he says. “By the way, all you need to do is say you want to take him home and he can go.”

Now he tells me. I sign for Franco. As we go home we see the man from the “mortgage company” forcefully turning over our three chairs.

We’ve been evicted.

I haven’t paid the rent, so now the Fuentes family is out on the street. Lucky for us, about that time the whistle blows signalling the end of the game.

Participants take away different lessons from the simulation, but several main points stick out for most everyone:

• Transportation is a huge issue for the poor. Throughout the simulation my lack of transportation passes hampered me -- so much so that I essentially cheated for most of the game just so I could continue playing.

In real life, I can jump in one of my two cars on a moment’s notice and get wherever I need to go, always having enough money for gas. But thousands of people in Savannah do not have that option. They must rely on a bus or a cab or their own two feet. (Why not more bicycles? Ah, but that’s a subject for a different article.)

I used to wonder why so many local proposals involving CAT arouse such strong feelings in some citizens. Hey, it’s just buses, right? What’s the big deal?

But I see now that if you’re under the poverty line, CAT is the whole shootin’ match. For many poor people, especially senior citizens, there is simply no other realistic way to get around and perform the basic functions of daily life.

• Poverty is a downward spiral. In my comfortable white middle class existence, I tackle problems in isolation. If I have a dispute over a bill, for example, it won’t hamper my ability to pay other bills or to keep my job. I just get on the phone, deal with it, and move on.

When you’re poor, however, one problem begets another. Attempts to prioritize your problems just end up costing you more down the line.

As Felicia Fuentes, in my haste to get food for my family, the bills mounted up with late fees and the rent didn’t get paid. I was forced to choose between food and shelter.

That’s not prioritization; it’s just picking your poison, going from one lose-lose situation to another. It’s no way to live.

• Hurry up and wait. Almost every participant commented afterward on how much of the game we spent waiting in line. This is clearly intentional on the part of the simulation developers, and reflects a frustrating reality for poor people trying to cope with various bureaucracies that -- contrary to white suburban opinion -- they really have little option about dealing with.

• Crime impacts poor people more. Not only are poor people the more likely victims of crime, they are the least equipped to bounce back afterwards.

I found this out when my packet was taken at water-pistol point. Without my possession cards, I couldn’t hock anything. Without my $10, I couldn’t buy a bus ticket. Without my ID, I was a nobody.

Lawyers get a lot of crap in our society, sometimes deservedly so. But I now have a newfound and very sincere appreciation for attorneys that provide services to the poor. I know Felicia Fuentes sure could have used one.

•Poverty hits children hardest. The most disturbing thing for me about the whole simulation was how I basically left my two teenagers to fend for themselves. What’s worse -- and I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this -- it was a conscious decision on my part.

I saw them very little, and when I did I always hassled them about something. I don’t think a single positive sentence left my mouth. By the end of the game my kids not only didn’t have food or shelter, they couldn’t even count on my love, attention or guidance -- simulated though it might have been.

This is surely the most insidious and truly evil effect of long-term poverty. And it is surely the experience from playing this simulation that will stick in my mind the longest. w

Jim is editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah.

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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Connect Today 10.22.2016

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