The Washington Post

On Capitol Hill, a brief simulation of what poor Americans go through each day

Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) hands over cash to volunteer Jeff Shapiro, who played the part of a banker during a poverty simulation at the U.S. Capitol on July 15. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

U.S. Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) had just finished voting on highway construction funding before he was rushed to a meeting room and thrust into the anxiety-ridden world of Ann and Albert.

Ann, a receptionist, and Albert, a computer programmer, had been struggling with their bills since Albert lost his job. They had two young sons, $200 in savings, a $600 mortgage and no insurance.

Kildee had about three minutes to understand the family’s story. He was playing the role of Albert in a simulation exercise taking place in a meeting room of the U.S. Capitol. And a congressional staffer was playing Ann.

The role play was a part of an hour-long exercise to help those working on Capitol Hill understand the day-to-day life of low-income families. About 60 staffers and interns, in pinstripe suits and pencil skirts, were pretending to be poor.

Surrounding them were meeting tables that represented pit stops: The homeless shelter. The bank. The pawn shop. The grocery store. Working in family units, each group had to figure out how to make it through a month as a poor person. In the exercise, one week lasted fifteen minutes.

Hill staffer Brett Snider had the identity of a 19 year-old woman with a 1-year old baby, without enough money to feed the child. So he was in line at a pawn shop to pawn a camera and television represented by the cards he holds. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The poverty simulation came to the Capitol in hopes of giving a bipartisan group of members of Congress a glimpse into the life of the poor, said Ann Pride, the director of federal government relations at Entergy, an energy company that worked with Catholic Charities to put on the event.

Given the intense debates in the past year over food stamps, Pride said she hoped that the simulation would instill a sense of empathy as Congress debates issues during the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

Linda Barnes, the event’s facilitator, reminded the crowd that the role-playing game was based on real people.

“This is not a game,” she said.

At the beginning of the session, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) noted the importance of combating the idea that poor people are lazy. Rep. Christopher P. Gibson (R-N.Y.) emphasized that politicians on both sides of the partisan aisle need to tackle poverty together. Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) addressed the need to understand the nuances of impoverished families.

Then they all left. Kildee joined his family unit 15 minutes after the session began, taking the role of Albert. Three other Democrats — Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Paul Tonko (N.Y.) and Joe Kennedy (Mass.) — also joined for parts of the exercise. No politician participated for the entire exercise.

Kildee’s simulated family strategized that he needed to go to the bank to cash his unemployment check, then use transportation passes to go find a job and work at the “General Employer” table.

“You need to go now!” a staffer told him. He had only seven minutes left in the imaginary week, and the family was desperate for money.

Kildee cut through the mass of empty chairs and the congregations of suits to get to the bank. It was there he learned that Albert owed money on his mortgage and needed to pay $100.

“I can’t believe this!”

Then he rushed to the General Employer, because he was warned that tardiness would come with consequences. He made it on time. But Kildee was still a little panicked. Young staffers and interns stood behind him.

“This is really hard,” Kildee said.

“You’re telling me?” replied the staffer, also playing a role. “My house was robbed last week.”

The next week — 15 minutes later — Kildee rushed to get transportation passes so his family could get to and from work. As he walked away from that table, two people approached him. They claimed he hadn’t made his loan payment for the month.

“I paid you last week!” he said.

“That’s not in the records,” the mock loan officer told him. “Did you get a receipt?”

“No, I was in a rush,” he said.

“You can give us $100 now,” the officer said.

“I’ll give you the money, but you have to give me a receipt,” said Kildee, his hands now filled with paperwork. He had learned his lesson.

Less than a half-hour into the exercise, a staffer told Kildee that he had to leave for another event. Kildee put down his papers and his funny money and shook some hands. He was thankful for the opportunity, but also a little relieved to leave.

“Poor people are the hardest-working people in America,” he said. “It’s hard.”

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.


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