Friday, April 17, 2015

Surviving is the New Black?

by Sean Armentrout, Vice President of Corporate Relations

Frustration is rising. I need to contact the mortgage company because rent is due this week. But I have to wait for my spouse to come home from work with money because today is pay day. Two more minutes pass. Now I’m anxious. Come on, we have to get this done. I only have two minutes before the timer hits and the week is over. My spouse gets home but the buzzer goes off. Our make-shift family now realizes that we are too late and are going to be evicted?

This is the experience I got to participate in with over 100 others at Pacific Lutheran University with their three hour Poverty Simulation this past Wednesday evening. Volunteers played the roles of numerous providers from schools, the police, banks, mortgage companies, utilities, the social services administration, and a pay day loan provider to just name a few. The rest of us were placed with families with a detailed portfolio of who we are, our circumstances, job (or lack thereof details), and the expenses we are facing; all are tough choices. I need to pay the mortgage or at least part of it, but pay day isn’t until the end of the week. Do I pay for clothing or my kid’s school activity? Great, I just received a card. The dreaded card, telling me our car broke-down. Now I have to wait some more.
As we all regrouped in a circle after the exercise, it became clear. Everyone had felt pressure. Tensions had risen, and we were all frustrated. All of these feelings arose after played out only 4 weeks in poverty; each week consisting of fifteen minutes.

I remember one young college student in a black Old Navy sweatshirt  describe how her ‘family’ started off bad but ended up “OK.”  A common experience where one mistake would set you back -- whether believing you could cash a check at a bank (where you don’t have an account) or going to the wrong agency for help could set you back. But if you were able to recover just fast enough you could be “OK.”

But OK shouldn’t be enough. A common feeling as we all tried to win in this game of life- life in poverty that is. But OK was just survival. It wasn’t better opportunities; it wasn’t relief from a situation that had no end in sight- it was just being OK. OK for one month. And many of our ‘families’ didn’t end up OK like the some of the others. As I mentioned before, my family was evicted because we were late by one day.
Should OK and merely surviving be the new definition of success? Is this now acceptable? We all hear how “pink is the new black” or “40 is the new 30.” I often use the last one to feel younger as my forty second birthday just passed me by. But survival alone should never be the new OK.

This simulation stressed to me how important a community coming together to tackle our toughest challenges is- how just providing services isn’t enough. Services many can’t reach, qualify for, or even know where exists. Not to mention they are often spread-out far away from those who need them; far from a family with one car, no car, or even reliable public transportation. It didn’t create despair, but instead, a feeling of tenacity. Perhaps even a fight inside of me. We can do better. We have to do better. Failure isn’t an option. So I look forward to the new partnerships arising whether Graduate Tacoma or United Way’s piloting Centers for Strong Families, where the vision, the mission, the measurements all strongly state that survival is not the new OK.

Poverty Simulation

by Mike Leonard, Resource Development Officer

Last night I had the opportunity to participate in a Poverty Simulation, hosted by Pacific Lutheran University. Roughly 70 people participated in the role play, most of them students from PLU, and a few of us from the non-profit sector.
We were randomly provided with the role of a family member. I was a grandfather of two young children, ages 7 and 9, married to Zelda. I received a monthly disability check for $500 and Zelda worked full time for minimum wage. We were guardians of the two granddaughters. Both parents are out of their lives; a mother incarcerated for drugs and no dad in the picture.

Our family was provided with a monthly budget that exceeded our take home pay. During our role play, we broke down each week into 15 minute segments. We worked frantically to get the kids to school, take the bus to pay our bills, and make tough choices on which bills we could pay.
As each 15 minute “week” passed by, the role play became more stressful. One week I forgot to buy groceries for the kids. By the third week, we ran out of money to pay for our youngest granddaughter’s medication, but we were able to keep up with mortgage and utility payments. By the end of week 4, we had $20 to our name.  Zelda missed getting to the bank on time before the end of the “month”, and we owed money for food, phone, clothing and an old debt to the bank. Challenging and stressful to say the least.

After the role play, participants broke into small groups to share thoughts and emotions. We then gathered into a large circle to digest what we experienced. Each participant was asked to share one take-away with the person sitting next to them. For me, it was the realization that 70 individuals will wake up today with a better appreciation of the struggles that so many families face every day.  And some may even choose to make a difference.
United Way of Pierce County invests in children and their families. By focusing on programs that help young children and their families, we can remove the barriers preventing them from breaking the cycle of poverty. Through strong families and successful kids, we can create a thriving and connected community.