Part II — The Simulation
She warned us it would feel like a game. And at times, it really did. That is, until it was over.
The Setting: Introductions
After going through registration I was handed an envelope with the number 23 on it (my family assignment) and a name tag that read: “Lynn Nelson”. It took me a while to find Family #23. The large room was set up with groups of folding chairs, and these represented different “families”. There must have been 30 or more chair groupings with 2–5 chairs in each group.
When I made it to my group I took a seat and waited for instructions. When the rest of my ‘family’ took their seats, we cordially took turns making introductions and shared briefly why we each of us registered for this poverty simulation.
The Overview: Nelson/Wilson Family in Sunnydale
We were finally allowed to open our envelopes and we read Family #23 as follows:
Me — Lynn Nelson, a 19 year old new mother to a baby girl named April. Barely graduated high school, still lives at home, applies for food stamps. She wants to start looking for a part time job.
Richard Wilson — Lynn’s boyfriend, he’s 21, works part time and every extra shift he can. Lives with the Nelson family to save money for his own apartment with Lynn and the baby; he helps the Nelson family pay the bills with all the extra cash he can afford after savings.
Cheryl Nelson — Lynn’s mother. She is 38, works part time at the Big Bucks Supermarket.
Jordan Nelson — Lynn’s 10 year old sister with ADD. Frequently gets into trouble at school because she cannot focus on her studies.
Paul Nelson — Cheryl’s husband, and Lynn and Jordan’s stepfather. He is a 40 year old veteran who spends the majority of his pension at the bar. He was arrested once for public intoxication and disorderly conduct — part of his parole is to attend weekly AA meetings at the Rescue Me Church.
Oh, and the Nelson/Wilson family does not own a car.*
The Instructions: Some Advice and Some Warnings
After everyone had had a few minutes to get a grasp on their families’ situations, the host stepped up to introduce herself and to give a few words.
She encouraged us to step into our characters as if this performance would win an Oscar (advice the guy playing my boyfriend Richard’s character took very much to heart, haha!) She then told us that we would live as these characters for the next hour which would equate to one month — 15 minutes was one week.
Then she warned us that periodically it would feel like a game.
“This is not to poke fun of people in poverty,” she assured. “This is designed to give you a glimpse into the life of someone who is experiencing poverty.”
Her second disclaimer was “this (poverty) is your issue”.
The room went quiet. I think out of confusion… I was definitely confused.
The first whistle blew!
The Game: An Hour-Long Month
Once the whistle blew everyone scattered. Though a large room, with so many voices there was a roaring buzz like bees in a hive. Cheryl and Richard used the bus passes to go straight to work, while Jordan went to school, and Paul went to the bar.
*In the poverty simulation, we had to show proof of transportation upon arrival at any location. And remember the Nelson/Wilson family does not own a car so I was left at home with the baby.
I felt useless, like I wasn’t playing right because I just sat there for the entire first week with a baby doll in my arms.
I watched the other family members scrambling about the room. Some had bills due so they’d line up outside Monty’s Moneybags Utility Company; others had doctor’s appointments; some had paperwork to file at the Department of Social Services (who we learned just recently had budget cuts reducing their staff). In fact, the majority of each facility in Sunnydale had only one person working which made for very long lines.
Some people in the simulation were given characters with disabilities who had to wear oven mitts on their dominant hands (making filling out paperwork much more time consuming and difficult). A few were assigned characters who did not speak English, having to hire an interpreter (which, go figure, there were only two in the Sunnydale community).
When the second whistle blew, that meant that the first week was over. All family members returned to their groups. I overheard quite a few didn’t get everything accomplished in the first week they were assigned, so that work I assumed would have to be made up in the second week. The gentleman playing my boyfriend, Richard, asked me what I did for the week, and I was embarrassed to tell him nothing.
“You just sat here?” He was puzzled.
I told him that I would have gone to find a job, but without a bus pass or money for daycare, I couldn’t. I was stuck.
In the second week, Richard left me a bus pass so I could at least go to the Department of Social Services to reapply for food stamps. I misinterpreted the instructions though because when I went to get my transportation validated I was informed that validation was meant to be the first step, not the second. I was escorted to jail. In Sunnydale, folks caught wandering around without ID or validated transportation were arrested and sent to jail. For the rest of week two and the entirety of week three — I sat in jail with my baby doll.
During week three — Richard was working hard, but never had enough money for bail. Cheryl was missing work because Jordan was on spring break from school. Paul was trying to still make it to his AA meetings. Eventually, Paul was able to get to the bank early to withdraw enough bail money for me.
For week four, I was back with my family, but sat there again with nothing to do.
By the time the last whistle blew — that’s when it all came out.
By the end of the simulation, I learned that Richard had been fired from his job, traded all his assets for cash, and recruited Jordan to help him sell drugs.
Poverty is a reality for many individuals and families. But unless you’ve experienced poverty, it’s difficult to truly understand. The Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) bridges that gap from misconception to understanding. CAPS is an interactive immersion experience. It sensitizes community participants to the realities of poverty.
CAPS is not a game. It is based on real Community Action clients and their lives.