BRADENTON -- An unemployed mother of two teenagers tried to explain to the pawnbroker that she needed to sell her grandmother's wedding ring to make the rent, telling the broker its value, but that it was priceless to her. All she needed was $100 to survive another month, but to the broker, it was just another ring and he offered her $40 or no deal.
It was just one of many scenarios that played out Wednesday at the First Baptist Church where the Manatee Community Action Agency hosted a poverty simulation in partnership with the Manatee County School District.
District leadership, law enforcement officers, health care professionals and others participated in the event to gain some understanding of what it might be like in the life of a family living at or under the poverty level in Manatee County. Participants were divided into families, assigned roles and were given everyday tasks to accomplish, such as finding work, balancing budgets, making sure the family is fed and, in most cases, seeking out the necessary help.
The perception that there are enough agencies available to help low-income families is true -- somewhat.
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The reality of what families go through in finding a way to get that help is a much different matter -- they often have children at their side, or a disability, or have difficulty finding transportation -- all while bills continue to pile up.
"The program is an opportunity for the participants to experience life on the edge at a gut level and get a feeling of how these families live," said Barbara Patten, executive director of MCAA. "The objective today is not to experience chronic-homeless poverty, but to experience poverty at a level of people who may live next door, go to school or who you see at the grocery store, and see what they have to do to survive."
The simulation featured everyday problems low-income families face from finding child care, paying utilities, filling out applications for social services, paying unexpected bills and, if necessary, trying to get a bed at a homeless shelter.
Participants were given very little "money" to survive for four simulated weeks, all the while trying to pay rent, buy groceries, family bus passes and more while trying to avoid "luck of the draw" cards that signaled the unforeseen disasters life can often bring -- including being a crime victim, being evicted or having a family member go to jail.
Carol Hunt, a MCAA specialist who was key to bringing the simulation to Manatee County for its third time, said it would be confusing for participants at first, "as it should be. If you all of a sudden find yourself in a position to need help, it's going to be confusing and it's something you have to figure out."
Patten said it was the school district which approached MCAA to conduct a third simulation and Wednesday's participants were well-represented by district employees. Citing more than 60 percent of Manatee County children who participate in free or reduced-price lunches, Manatee County School District Superintendent Rick Mills said it's a national and local challenge to become better-educated on what hurdles impoverished families face.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to get a greater understanding of the things these families live through," said Mills, noting the importance of raising sensitivity to their daily plight.
Simulation is not a game
Patten said Head Start serves 667 local families living life on the edge.
"We see the impact of that ... and it is profound," she said.
Participants began the simulation in good cheer. There were smiles, hugs and some good-natured laughter as community professionals fell into their individual roles within their low-income families. The good cheer didn't last.
As the simulation wore on, a mother applying for food stamps and unemployment claims was told she was eligible, but the checks wouldn't start for another month. In the meantime, her 14-year-old daughter strolled in to inform her she had traded her bus pass for candy.
Over at the bank, another mother trying to get money for bills was informed a bank fee put her on overdrawn checking account status and was charged another fee, leaving her without enough to pay her bills.
The pawn shop got busy. The jail got busier. The homeless shelter filled up.
Patten warned the simulation was not a game and by the end of the program, many of the smiles had faded and stress was apparent.
It's life on the edge, she said.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.