What is a poverty simulation? Manatee employees get lesson in empathy with ‘Life on the Edge’

Flat tires, injuries or other obstacles can change the life of someone who scrapes by with each paycheck.

Step Up Suncoast and the School District of Manatee County partnered to hold “Life on the Edge,” a small glimpse into the life of struggling students and families. District employees and service providers met at G.D. Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School for the lesson in hardship and empathy on Saturday morning.

Each guest received a fictitious name and family, along with several requirements: secure a home, buy food, maintain utilities, pay loans, buy clothing and overcome sudden obstacles, all while keeping the children in school.

“You may have grown up in poverty, and it may bring back those experiences to you,” said Carol Hunt, director of early childhood services for Step Up Suncoast.

“There have been times we’ve done this and people were almost in tears because they remember standing in line to get cheese,” she continued. “They remember all of that. They remember the evictions and having to move on a dime.”

Hunt said nearly 11 percent of Manatee County residents live at or below the federal poverty line. Furthermore, more than 20 percent of local children live in poverty.

The struggles of poverty can affect a child’s brain structure and hurt their ability to learn, she said. When their basic needs go unmet, retaining information and developing new skills can feel impossible.

Cynthia Saunders, superintendent of Manatee Schools, said she struggled with poverty as a child. She found support in her schools and community.

“Poverty can be defeated, and education can change lives,” she said. “That’s what makes this so powerful and important.”

More than a dozen people scrambled to school sign-ups when the simulation started, but the line quickly shifted to cash advances and social services. The station for services was so crowded that many avoided help all together.

Social services were understaffed, and a sign was affixed to one of the desks: “SNAP benefits are not available due to government shutdown.”

Mirroring reality, participants were uninformed about some of the available resources, and many found it difficult to pay the transportation fee when moving from one station to the next.

Most people arrived to their imaginary jobs on time, yet they struggled to keep up.

People were evicted from their “homes,” while other participants sold their fictitious radios, televisions and vintage jewelery to keep up with bills. Despite some people’s best efforts, the climb out of poverty can be overwhelming.

Devon Jarrett is a service specialist for the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. He works with struggling families on a daily basis, and he felt better equipped to empathize and ask informed questions.

“To actually be in the scenario was a learning experience,” he said.

The school superintendent was joined by Charlie Kennedy, Dave Miner and James Golden, of the Manatee County School Board.

“All of us are going to leave here and go back to the life that we had before we came in here at 8:30 this morning,” Golden said. “And the overwhelming feeling I got from being here this morning is that some people live like this every day. They do not know when or even if this kind of living will end.”