Five Lessons From a Poverty Simulation
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a “poverty simulation” as part of a legal conference I attended. It was an eye-opening experience.
Each participant was a member of a “family,” and each family had to live through one month with a given set of circumstances and resources. For four 15-minute “weeks,” we had to fulfill responsibilities like going to work or school, and pay for food, utilities, and clothing. As time allowed, we could also visit institutions like social services, a pawn shop, an inter-faith organization, or a title loan company.
I was 13-year-old Penelope Perez. My “family” consisted of an imprisoned father, a 21-year-old brother attending community college, my twin sister, and a 3-year-old brother. Here’s what I learned.
1. The struggle to overcome poverty is exhausting.
For those who are truly poor, doing the right things requires more time and energy than we might imagine.
With no parents in the home, my older brother bore an incredible load. His days were filled with daycare drop-offs, applying for financial aid programs, and trying his best to buy a few healthy groceries.
Finding time to attend classes was hard for him. So I can imagine how difficult it must be for someone like him to make time for studying, having a social life, or taking on extra work to improve the situation.
2. It’s easy to be anonymous.
People struggling against poverty may remain unknown to community members who could otherwise help them.
This is partly because of the all-consuming nature of the struggle. But it also seems to be a function of how our society tries to address poverty. Individuals are quickly lost in all the formulas and paperwork.
At two points in the process, I told Penelope’s sad story to busy aid workers. Both times, I was asked, “What is your biggest immediate need?” I wrestled over whether utility payments or groceries were top priority. It did not even occur to me to mention the need that truly would have been my greatest in that situation: love. Hope. To know that someone cared about me and my family.
3. Family is foundation.
It’s been said over and over again. And we must keep saying it, because it’s true.
I didn’t get to read all the notebooks that described each family’s circumstances. But as I listened to the debrief at the end of the simulation, it became apparent that almost every “family” was a variant of the “traditional” family. Several included divorced spouses. Some were unmarried, cohabiting couples. Mine involved two absent parents. The lesson was clear: when the family structure breaks, poverty is likely to follow.
The fact that something is “traditional” doesn’t make it right. But when it comes to prosperity, it’s hard to beat an intact family with a mother, father, and children, living and working together as a team.
4. Sometimes we make choices, and sometimes we live with the choices of others.
Children don’t get to choose whether their parents marry, do drugs, commit crimes, or stay together. Children are left to do what they can with circumstances they did not create and cannot control. The community should support them.
But when those children reach a certain age, they do have the opportunity to make different choices than those their parents made. As the saying goes, “You are not born a winner or a loser, but you are born a chooser.”
5. The Church is often overlooked.
During the debrief at the end of the simulation, the director said that many times when she conducts the session, few participants even think to visit the “inter-faith services.”
“Official” programs run by bureaucrats have supplanted the Church as the primary means of helping the poor. This is tragic, because the Church is a source of not only material and financial resources, but also of emotional, spiritual, and relational support.
Poverty is complex. It’s not always the result of a person’s own bad choices, as some tend to think. And throwing money at it isn’t always the answer, as others tend to think.
But I think this is universally true: Strong personal relationships are key to alleviating the problem of poverty. Not only are they the basis of the kind of families that tend to avoid poverty, but they are also the basis of the kind of holistic caring that can ensure the real needs of real people are truly met.
Government programs are poorly suited to nurturing personal relationships. Their efficacy at addressing poverty is therefore seriously limited.
Rita Dunaway is a constitutional attorney, the author of Restoring America’s Soul: Advancing Timeless Conservative Principles in a Wayward Culture, and co-host of the weekly radio program, “Crossroads: Where Faith and Culture Meet.”