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Coming face to face with poverty

Interested citizens from Red Wing and surrounding areas find the seats that correspond to their respective roles as they prepare for Wednesday's Poverty Simulation. The event was in the Red Wing Public Library Foot Room and put on by United Way and 20 volunteers. Cate Zenzen / RiverTown Multimedia

Frustration, anxiety, stress, embarrassment; these words encapsulate the feelings of the community members who participated in the United Way Poverty Simulation,Wednesday afternoon at the Red Wing Public Library.

United Way has done several simulations, but this was the first to open to anyone in the community.

Police officers, educators, social workers, city officials and interested community members were among the 40-some attendees.

Laura Prink, community impact manager at United Way of Goodhue, Wabasha & Pierce Counties, said the main goal was to "increase understanding" and "sensitize us to the realities of low-income families."

Upon entrance to the library Foot Room, each attendee was assigned a role to play as realistically as possible. The hour was divided into four,15-minute intervals that each represented one week, the total length being one month in poverty.

I participated in the simulation and was encouraged to think as a person experiencing poverty would think.

My "family" was more fortunate in its structure than most, with two able-bodied adult parents and three children. Many people were assigned to families with single parents, members in prison or other complications that furthered their difficulty in staying financially stable throughout the "month."

My role as a 10-year old boy was seemingly simple.

I would go to school for most of the day and my "parents" would handle the important things like food, house mortgage and car payments.

Yet despite the "typical" structure of the family, relations were strained. Often I would return from "school" to an empty "house," my parents off doing what they could to stem the constant flow of costs.

The effect was to imagine how I feel as a real child in that situation, my guardians forced to choose between looking after me or managing expenses and tasks outside of home.

The perimeter of the Foot Room housed different "agencies"—Social Services, a pawn shop, a homeless shelter, the bank and even a workplace—and participants were challenged with getting from place to place with limited resources.

The trial of transportation was represented in "transportation passes," one pass allowing a single trip to a location.

This brought further frustration as each service was in a different location, and a "pass" could easily be wasted by going to the wrong place.

My "family" experienced this as we traveled from the "homeless shelter" to another location in search of further aid. We were discouraged to learn that we had used up precious transportation passes to get to a place that couldn't help us, and the location that could was the place we had just come from.

This simulated the reality of important services located in separate buildings, with communication between them being essentially non-existent.

Even illegal activity was represented: A volunteer posing as a drug dealer approached the players throughout the simulation offering money if they would "pick up a package."

Several players later admitted to following through with this, the idea of easy money too tempting to resist in their state of desperation.

In a post-simulation reflection, each "family" shared their experience with the group.

Many reflected on struggling with tunnel-vision, focusing only on the tasks they needed to complete rather than caring for their neighbors or their own "children."

Some expressed a fear of others, scared that any kind of interaction would burden them or break their fragile financial situation.

Even though the experience was fictitious, players glimpsed a shadow of the desperate, confused and numb consciousness felt by low-income families.

"This is all too much," one attendee said.

Another felt strained in the challenge of just "trying to survive the day with no rest."

Prink ended the discussion by presenting some figures that gave insight into what poverty looks like in Goodhue County. She shared that despite a low unemployment rate of 2.2 percent in recent years, the poverty rate continues to climb. Furthermore, the minimum wage has reached a plateau, a constant rate that has not changed even while housing payments and other expenses rise.

"The supply is not currently meeting the demand," Prink said.

The combination of these facts and the trying experience of the simulation cloaked the room with a realization of the inescapable challenges of low-income families.

One voice in the crowd said, "Something's got to change," an expression that was met with agreement by everyone in the room.