MOUNT PLEASANT — Albert Aber was having a bad day.
His morning bus was late, which made him late to work, where his boss yelled about slack workers and docked his pay. He went to the bank on the way home to cash his check so he could pay the rent and buy food, but the tellers had already locked the doors and ignored his pleas.
When Aber arrived home, his four children were sitting on the curb, clutching some of their belongings and an eviction notice.
Albert Aber is a fictional name and his scene was part of a poverty simulation exercise sponsored by East Cooper Community Outreach, but the story behind the acting is very real. It is a scenario that plays out in the lives of low-income families every day.
“This shows what it’s like to be in a family that does not have enough money to get by,” said Gail Montgomery, director of ECCO’s Out of Poverty initiative (visit www.eccocharleston.org).
The poverty initiative teamed with ECCO’s Community Education and Awareness office to offer the simulation classes, Montgomery said. The purpose is to teach people about the underlying issues and systemic problems that keep people in poverty.
After that, the goal is to take that knowledge and build a formal organization with task forces to identify and solve problems, and help people get out of generational poverty, she said.
The simulation was held Sept. 15 at Hibben United Methodist Church and drew about 51 people, who were assigned random roles in a variety of low-income family situations.
Over the course of two hours, they tried to put themselves in the lives of different people, such as teenage parents living in a trailer park, or married couples with children and aging parents to support on one, meager income.
Their task sounded simple: get to their jobs, pay their rent and utilities, and buy food.
“Your primary goal is to survive,” Montgomery told the group.
Most of the participants did not do a very good job of it.
By the end of the session, which was supposed to represent four weeks, only a few people had managed to buy food for their families. Those who made it to the grocery store were caught up in red tape and long lines, and forced to leave empty-handed.
Yes, red tape at the grocery store. Imagine people with no food for their children and their food stamps were stolen, or they don’t have enough to buy items for a meal. The simulation showed entire families living daily with hunger. It also showed children going to school and how their hunger and home-life stress manifested itself as inattentiveness or hostility.
Another scenario highlighted the case of a 19-year-old trying to arrange affordable day care so she could find a job. With no money in her pocket, she used her only bus pass to go to the Social Security office, where she was told she must have a job before they can help with child care.
Her bewilderment and frustration were evident.
“How am I supposed to find a job while carrying around a baby?” she asked.
They referred her to another agency, but she could not travel there because she didn’t have money or a bus pass.
ECCO workers observed the process and handed out luck of the draw cards. Some were good luck such as jobs or small raises, but others were bad and delivered small financial hits that dug the hole deeper.
“When you’re in poverty, you feel like you’re being kicked when you’re already down,” said Ann Ward, ECCO’s director of development.
After struggling unsuccessfully to complete their tasks, the participants spoke about how the simulation made them feel.
“It was terrible. Terrible!” one woman said.
Others expressed frustration, anger, constant stress and anxiety, and the feeling that they were looked upon as less than.
“It’s a chaotic lifestyle that’s strictly present oriented,” Montgomery said.
With any luck, she said, the poverty simulations will be the first step at changing that lifestyle and providing a plan for the future.