Last Thursday, Gwyneth Paltrow snapped a photo of $29 worth of groceries. It lit the Internet on fire.
Paltrow was trying to survive a week on the food budget of someone who qualifies for SNAP benefits, or food stamps. Not surprisingly, the multimillionaire actress got a lot of flak for her stunt. The Telegraph, echoing critiques heard ’round the world, chided “No Gwyneth, busy mothers can’t live on lettuce, limes and beans.”
I’m not quite so dismissive. Sure, this experiment doesn’t simulate poverty all that well. But as program manager at Seattle University’s Faith and Family Homelessness Project, I know that’s a tall order. It’s almost impossible for to understand what it’s like to be poor in America. Unless, of course, you are.
I work closely with people of faith who want to change the world. These are some of the sweetest, most well-meaning people I know; they work with low income people on a daily basis. Still, most have never had to choose between paying rent and buying food for their children. To them, it seems impossible that a family could have no place to go if they lost their home. Many wonder, “Why don’t just people pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” I understand this attitude. A problem like poverty is complex, there’s no one solution. But in order to be effective advocates for change, we need to empathize with the people we serve. We need to see the world through their eyes.
At Seattle University, we’ve tried to do this using the Missouri Association for Community Action’s Poverty Simulation tool kit. They’ve designed a workshop that includes a one-hour poverty simulation broken into four 15-minute “weeks.” During the simulation “families” go to work or school, pay their bills, pay for transportation and feed their families. Most start with a roof over their heads, a job, some money and resources. A few start out homeless, living in the shelter.
We always have a handful of people who show up just to prove it’s not all that hard, that they’ll be able to “win.” These are the folks who push back at the “rules” and want to find a way around the system. For example, they can’t understand why poor families don’t have access to online bill pay. We gently remind them that not everyone has an account at the bank; we send them over to the Quick Cash to learn about the way check cashing operations really work. The reality of paying a fee to cash your check is hard to take when you’ve had a bank account since you were in grade school.
I believe every person who goes through the simulation experiences some level of frustration, stress and anxiety. It’s not unusual to see a person hiding out in their designated home to catch their breath. We’ve even had participants chose to stay in “jail” to get out of finishing the simulation.
One of the most shocking revelations is around the impact of poverty on children. Adults are assigned the role of a child, and this gives them a chance to feel what it’s like to see your world crumbling around you – and you have no way to fix the problem. Those playing the role of parents are stopped in their tracks at the realization they left their children unattended as they rushed around trying to get help at the various service providers around the room. There simply wasn’t time to give the children your full attention because you were too worried about staying housed. This hits people particularly hard.
The service providers and other support roles are filled by local volunteers who are often people who have experienced – or are experiencing – poverty or homelessness. Each is given an opportunity to share their personal story at the conclusion of the simulation, offering a deeper look into the day-to-day lives of people struggling right here in our community. One of our favorite volunteers bravely shares her personal experience with domestic violence and poverty, which opens the door to a deeper understanding of the intersections of violence, power and money.
Yes, it’s impossible to fully simulate what it’s like to wake up with an empty stomach for the third day in a row. Its unlikely one can begin to feel the depth of a parent’s anguish when they come home to an eviction notice. But simulations like our Poverty Workshop or the SNAP Challenge can be the catalyst that pushes people to look deeper at the problem and do something about it.