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.