Access to health care, jobs, housing, transportation and child care was just beyond reach. If they were attainable, they were costly necessities that made the difference as to whether there would be dinner on the table or lights on at night.
They scrambled to find jobs and to feed their families, while handling as best they could the mishaps and misfortunes that easily derail plans, leading to hunger or homelessness or both.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” said Mike Buckingham, who is retired after several careers, including a stint as a CPA. “You don’t know what is going to happen next.”
Buckingham isn’t poor. But he and about 60 other people with business backgrounds, careers in human resources, education or government spent about four hours Thursday getting a dose of empathy for those who struggle to make ends meet. January is Poverty Awareness Month.
They were part of a seminar held at Yorkview Hall at York College where participants broke into groups and then were asked to live the life – if only for a morning – of families in poverty. Each person was given an identity, one sometimes completely different than their own. Men or women were asked to be fathers or mothers, boys or girls, or teens. They spent four 15-minute sessions – each session representing one week – navigating daily routines to make ends meet.
Buckingham, for example, was given the identity of a 14-year-old girl. His mother was Michael Helfrich, the newly sworn-in mayor of York. Together, they did their best, Buckingham said. But Helfrich felt he had failed. In applying for a job, he didn’t fill out the forms properly. He didn’t get the job.
“I was depressed and angry at myself,” Helfrich told the group during a de-briefing.
The event was sponsored by the Community Progress Council, a York-based social services agency, in partnership with The Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy at the college and the York County Economic Alliance.
“This is a simulation,” said Carolyn Lerew, who works for Community Progress Council and who guided the participants through the exercises. The goal was to learn. “It’s not a game.”
Lerew and Robin Rohrbaugh, the president and CEO of the Community Progress Council, said that about 45,000 people in York County live in poverty. For a family of four, the poverty level in 2017 was annual income of $24,600.
The Community Progress Council maintains that a living wage for one adult and two children is $27.35, while the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not changed since 2009.
The stereotypes often are that some people in poverty are lazy or don’t care. The truth, they said, is that poverty can trap anyone, including those who are motivated and want a better life.
A person could be doing well in a given month, and then they have their bus pass stolen and suddenly they can’t get to work. Or child care could become an issue, and that leads to loss of a job. Sickness can derail any family, swiftly and decisively.
The participants on Thursday got a taste of such misfortunes and were forced to confront them.
“It was such an eye opener,” said Jess Abrams Schrodel, who works for the Penn State University Educational Opportunity Center. “Just knowing how difficult it is to make all of it work – the limited resources, the constant living with stress.”
Schrodel was given the identity of a 36-year-old unemployed mother. She got a job during the simulation but left with a sour taste for what it was like to live on the edge.
Other participants described perilous situations, one saying that her plight surely would lead to thoughts of suicide if she faced the problems in the real world.
One woman, who was given the identity of a 9-year-old, said she resorted to theft, taking an imaginary ring from an imaginary pawn shop set up for the simulation. The woman said her family was facing sickness with no health insurance, so she stole the ring so the family could eat.
A man said he was arrested for loitering, which meant that he couldn’t fill out an application for housing and that led to half a week of homelessness.
More than one participant used the words “helpless” and “frustrated” to sum up their experiences.
Rohrbaugh said the issues of poverty are countywide, and not just a problem in York city.
“It’s everywhere,” she said.
The Community Progress Council has held simulations before. The goal is to sensitize as many people as possible to the problem, so they feel compelled to do something about it, she said.
The simulation also showed the stresses that the professionals face, whether they are social workers or police officers or educators. Stations were set up across the room, so that the participants could interact with such agencies.
Deb Goodling-Kime, the CFO at the Community Progress Council, acted as a teacher at a school, having to deal with students and parents. Oftentimes, those who give aid in one area can’t always help in the ways a child or parent might need. For example, a teacher isn’t really in a position to help a student who is hungry, and that causes stress.
“Teachers have that pressure a lot,” she said. “So they give their own money and time and food and do other things.”
In the end, the group of community and business leaders felt compelled to suggest ways to help. One person suggested that businesses could do more to offer flexible schedules and to be more compassionate with low-wage workers who run into unforeseen problems.
Schrodel, who also works with the newly formed York County Council of Human Services Agencies, suggested that like-minded groups develop bilingual classes that could help everyone provide better services.
Paula D. Copeland, a manager with the state Department of Human Services, said agencies and businesses could work to remove barriers. For example, a lot of agencies are only open during normal business hours. The simulation drove such points home, she said.
“We need to go back and see what we can do to try to remove those barriers,” she said.
Helfrich said he will continue advocating for neighborhood centers, churches and other places where community members gather to have forms and applications readily available so people don’t have to travel downtown to get started when applying for jobs or services. The idea is to have about 20 “ecosystems” citywide that would offer assistance with issues that make sense, he said.
Rohrbaugh said the event gives participants a real taste for what it is like to be poor.
“It shows how chaotic it is to live in poverty,” she said.
“There are many reasons people end up in poverty,” Rohrbaugh added. “It’s not a matter of working harder or turning off the TV. There really are many, many other barriers that keep people in poverty.”