Gaining understanding

"Bankers," Ron McLaughlin, left, and Susan Radis, completed a transaction with poverty simulation participants Dr. Robert Gillio and Jessica Dimoff Querry Thursday night in the Ellis Ballroom at Juniata College. 

Nearly 80 people of all ages spent three hours Thursday night gaining a glimpse into a life lived with limited means and opportunities and seemingly unlimited obstacles through a poverty simulation event held in Ellis Ballroom at Juniata College.

The Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) was sponsored by the Center for Community Action (CCA) and hosted by CCA, Huntingdon County CareerLink and Juniata College.

“I thought it went really well and people were very receptive of this event,” said Juniata College student and CCA intern Lily Formosa, who organized the event with fellow student and intern Rebecca Baron.

Participants started the evening off on a light-hearted note as they perused the dossiers given to them which described the identity they would take on for the night as well as the family unit they belonged to and the family’s living situation and assets.

“We had a really great turnout,” Baron said. “I’m really glad everyone showed up.”

As the simulation began, each person was made to navigate stations representing businesses and agencies such as an employer, human service providers, a bank, a super center/food store, homeless shelter, interfaith services, a childcare center, a school, a mortgage/rental company, a utility company, a pawn shop, a payday lender and a police station over the course of four 15-minute weeks with a three-minute weekend — all while dealing with the realities of extremely limited income.

“People became exponentially more stressed,” said Baron. “It kept building on top of itself as they dealt with problems in life. Some of my friends started out the evening like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure, this will be easy,’ but it got hard. By the second week, they were focused on doing the stuff they had to do.”

To illustrate the difficulties in access to services many living below the poverty level experience, transportation vouchers were required for those moving between the stations.

“Everyone kept asking, ‘How do I get this?’ or ‘How do I get that?,’ I told them they had to be crafty,” Formosa said. “You can’t move without transportation passes. You can ask to borrow them from a neighbor or steal them. These are different things that happen in reality.”

Throughout the experience, incidents of theft, truancy, robbery and drug dealing became commonplace, all while the mortgage and reality company progressively evicted families from their “homes.”

“The goal is to have people be enlightened as to what it may be like to live in poverty,” said Formosa. “Obviously, this is just a snapshot. It’s not everyone’s situation.”

In Pennsylvania, more than 12.5% of residents live at or below the federal poverty level — less than $24,860 for a family of four —according to the 2018 census. This means more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians struggle to meet their basic needs.

CCA serves residents in nine counties and provides a variety of services to underserved or impoverished populations. Last year, CCA provided services to 8,259 individuals, including those aimed at maintaining housing, childcare and food/nutrition. In 2018-2019, CCA assisted 270 households experiencing homelessness by helping them obtain safe or temporary shelter. A total of 2,222 households were aided in receiving subsidized childcare and 4,713 individuals received assistance with food through local food pantries.

In a debriefing session following the simulation, participants universally expressed the frustration they felt and the stress that comes from having an continuous survival mindset. A majority of those involved were touched by the experience and left feeling inspired to work toward change.

“We just want people to understand that poverty affects people in so many ways,” Formosa said. “There are so many different variables that you don’t think about if you are not dealing with them.”

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