MANATEE — The first step in fighting poverty is understanding the struggle of the poor, according to the organization charged with leading that fight in Manatee County.
That’s why the Manatee Community Action Agency is starting a program aimed at giving those who want to make a difference a crash course on what it means to be poor.
The MCAA will hold a Life on the Edge workshop and panel discussion March 18 at First Baptist Church Family Life Center. It’s the starting point of a $20,000 anti-poverty initiative paid for by federal stimulus funds.
The key component of the workshop is a poverty simulation that allows participants, in this case community leaders and decison-makers, to play the role of poor families facing everyday challenges.
“It’s a concrete experience that hopefully will help break the stereotype about what people in poverty are all about,” said MCAA Executive Director Barbara Patten.
The simulation was created by the Missouri Association for Community Action and adapted for use in Manatee County.
“They don’t like us to use the term ‘play,’ because it’s really not a game,” said Carol Hunt, MCAA’s director of resource connection for families. “It’s just trying to simulate the real life of a lot of people in our community.
“At the end of it, hopefully there’s a little bit better understanding of the complexities and the thought process and how difficult it really is to navigate your way through a system that helps to support you when you’re low-income.”
Simulation participants will be split into families — some homeless, others recently unemployed and some trying to stave off eviction.
The families will experience four, 15-minute “weeks” in which they must ensure that family members are nourished, housed and safe. To do that, they will visit booths that represent services available to help the poor or alternate ways to survive, like drug dealers.
“They talk about the tyranny of the moment, meaning how stressful it is. You basically get a flavor of what your life would be like,” Hunt said. “It probably will be that a lot of them have had to resort to other skill sets than they usually use, like criminal activity, to pay the bills.”
Each family will receive a set number of transportation tokens that must last through each week. Also, volunteers will walk around handing out cards — like the Chance or Community Chest cards in the board game Monopoly — that present a windfall or an additional challenge to overcome.
“You have to think differently,” Hunt said. “If you have to go to an appointment, you have to make arrangements for your child because if you take the child with you, you use two transportation passes. Then you don’t have that resource.”
Hunt said people who have gone through a simulation say they now understand why they might see a mother with four children grocery shopping at Walmart at 11 p.m. on a weeknight. There may be no other option for that family because of work schedules or the availability of transportation, she said.
The MCAA hopes to expand the simulations to churches and community organizations as part of a larger effort to identify and engage people interested in helping the poor in Manatee.
Considering the current economic conditions, poverty is an issue that resonates. The MCAA helped more than 13,500 families in Manatee, DeSoto and Hardee counties in 2007.
“We have a whole new class of people in Manatee County, the newly poor,” Patten said. “These were folks that even to some extent were donors to us that are now clients.”
The MCAA plans a 12-week course called Bridges out of Poverty for people who are inspired to help by their participation in the simulations. Those who complete the course will be eligible for the Circles Campaign, which will connect volunteers with a poor person or family for mentoring.