SMITHFIELD — After taking part in a poverty simulation staged by the United Way of the Greater Triangle, Francis Hughes summed up the experience in one sentence.
“We spent most of our time at Social Services, waiting,” said Hughes, a staff member with Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action.
That’s one of the realities faced by people living below the poverty line, a growing class in Johnston County. The latest Census estimate puts the county poverty rate a 15 percent, up from 10.8 percent in 2010.
The United Way highlighted the problems faced by this growing demographic in its poverty simulation at the Johnston Medical Mall. Keith Dimsdale, chairman-elect of the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce, organized the simulation for other businesspeople in the county, but participants also included staffers from various social-services agencies.
The simulation assigned each participant an alternate identity – a teen mother, for example, or a disabled retiree. Each situation was different, and some were harder than others, but everyone had extremely limited income.
In the course of a few hours, participants – organized into families – had to get through a month in their roles. They ran errands while seeking assistance, managing their finances and dealing with family problems.
The organizers strived to make the simulation as realistic as possible. For example, participants had to use a transportation card representing money for gas or public transit to get from one place to another. Some parents must deal with truant or delinquent teens.
Stan Holt, a United Way staff expert on homelessness, said poverty simulations are eye-opening experiences for people who’ve never been poor. “Most people will tell you they really walk away realizing that oftentimes it’s not the individuals who are to blame for their situation,” Holt said. “It’s the system. ... The system’s not supportive.”
The exercise is designed to give participants a taste of the boredom and frustration of living from check to check. Some people get creative, turning to illegal activities to earn money. United Way staffers said they occasionally see mock robberies or even shootings.
Wednesday’s simulation didn’t have robberies or shootings, but participants were feeling the frustration. They vented after a couple of hours of shuffling among staffers playing bureaucrats, bankers, store owners, clergy and social workers.
Eric Jensen, who owns a couple of hardware stores in the county, talked about how a simple miscue nearly left his character ruined. He forgot to bring his ID to the bank to cash his Social Security check. He couldn’t cash it, and his family’s transportation balance was gone. His son-in-law lost his job because he couldn’t get to work.
“It’s interesting how you can make one little mistake and everything can go rolling downhill,” he said.
Participants often had to deal with unscrupulous characters. Laura Tina Ray of Community Action played a pawn shop clerk who shortchanged customers. In the discussion afterward, she said she hadn’t been caught once.
“Nobody asked for any receipts, and I did very brisk business,” she said. Ray used her role as a teaching moment for other community agency employees. Tell your clients to count their change and get receipts, she said.
Michelle Denning, a Smithfield attorney, played a single mother of two teenagers. She was struck by how little time she had to supervise her kids. She was so busy going from one place to the next, she said, that “I had no idea where my kids were.”
Jill Cox of the N.C. United Way said the exercise was especially relevant now, as state legislators talk about possible tax reform and changes to various benefits.
“We’re cutting back every day at the General Assembly,” she said. “We’re going to see these situations more and more.”