This afternoon, as part of our professional development, we took part in a poverty simulation put on by Northeast Iowa Community Action. The purpose, pretty obvious, to give us who are decidedly middle class teachers a small sampling of what poverty is all about.
For those who’ve not done this, our “families” were randomly picked out (I was a 39 year old underemployed mother of three), and each family had a situation card given. My husband was out of work with no benefits, I had a pregnant 16 y/o daughter along with sons, ages 8 and 10. To travel, we needed tickets for a “trip” for anything (pay bills, go to the job, cash checks, etc). We spent a “month” (15 minutes per week) trying to make ends meet. Without getting too detailed, we lost our house, almost lost our children, had our utilities shut off, and our 8 year old decided to help the local drug dealer, trying to help the family. I missed a week of work because of a banking issue, and that killed us. We paid a small portion on our mortgage, didn’t get a receipt, and when we went to pay the rest, got told “oh you never paid that money, it’s not on our books.”
Again, this was a simulation, but the stress that our “family” felt, huddling over the bills trying to figure how to pay them and when, our kids complaining that we only talked about money, and watching my co-workers slowly falling victims to their own situation was scary. Normally calm people were quite loud, people were literally running to certain stations when new weeks began, and starting to do things they wouldn’t do in real life. People stole from each other, bumped in line, yet watched to totally for those who they cared for. Each of the agency workers (about two dozen volunteers) commented how the first two weeks were pretty normal, but the third and especially the fourth week, things got frantic and they could feel the stress levels going up. We also talked about the services that are offered, many that families may not know about. We also discussed how a small increase in wages could mean a large decrease in services, and how families may “play the system” by not always reporting those increase, but doing so not because they were wanting to be dishonest, but because they were trying to survive.
What did I take away from this? First, I have no idea what poverty is about, period. I know I have students coming in every day (our free and reduced is 45%) who haven’t eaten, who’ve been up late taking care of siblings, or who will get off the bus and work. How many of our parents, those whom we say need to be more involved, are working two and three jobs, running like crazy, and simply run out of time to sign the book slip or assignment notebook. Second, the physical stress on our family and staff grew as the time went on. We did this for an hour. How many of our families are living this stress, day in, day out, month after month? And finally, the question was asked how can you personally help someone get out of poverty. My answer, one word: educated. We must continue to push education, early childhood, Headstart, Reading Recovery, Second Chance Reading, before and after school programs, all of these things to help our families out. We have to keep pushing the importance of education in breaking that cycle of poverty, but even more then that, we need to offer to students mentors, role models who’ve used their schooling to get themselves out of that cycle. If that’s all they know, it’s very hard to change the mind set because it’s scary and so different!
This was one of the better trainings I’ve had in 17 years, and would jump at a chance to see this done again or even be part of the group helping. My one hope is that our staff takes some of that stress, learns from it, and finds a positive way of using the experience in class with students. We as teacher continue to make a difference, this training just cements that even more. We do good work, and need keep keep our focus on the most important things to us: our students and their well being!