By Carissa Woytach, United Way of Greater Cleveland Staff Writer
I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in poverty. I haven’t had to spend hours navigating job and family services, learn how to apply for cash assistance or unemployment.
I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay for my car insurance or gas. I know I have enough money to buy food and clothes, to go to the doctor when I’m sick.
I recognize the privileges financial stability affords. These privileges are something 340,000 Ohio families don’t have, according to the state’s 2016 poverty report.
I attended United Way Services of Geauga County’s poverty simulation first to report, second to learn. Playing the game of navigating payday loan sharks and pawn shops may not be my reality, but it is for many.
This simulation made me fully realize something I’d heard people say for years — time is money.
And if you’re poor, time is something that you can never have enough of.
United Way Services of Geauga County hosted its poverty simulation July 28 at the Kent State University campus in Burton, Ohio. Facilitated by the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the simulation allowed volunteers and participants to experience what it is like to live in poverty in Geauga County.
The event simulated a month in low-income families’ lives, with each week being 13 minutes. Attendees were broken into families based on social work cases from Missouri Community Action Network, which originally designed the simulation kit. Volunteers staffed the social and community resources low-income families often interact with.
Approximately 60 people attended the simulation, including several lawmakers and representatives from county social services. These included State Representative Sara LaTourette; Geauga County Commissioner Skip Claypool; Claridon Township Trustee Mike Farrell; Executive Director of Geauga County Job and Family Services Craig Swenson; and Mary Jane Trapp, who served a six-year term for the 11th Appellate District for the Ohio Court of Appeals.
Navigating the game
As a participant, I was part of the Locke/Louis family. The family of four included 36-year-old married couple Linda and Larry, their 15-year-old daughter Lily and their partially paralyzed father-in-law Lester. As Linda, I while unemployed, spent my days caring for Lester and working through the services in the simulation, including waiting in line to buy transportation passes, paying utilities and pawning possessions to pay for food.
At the beginning of the simulation, each family received a packet which listed their monthly expenses, valuable possessions, titles to cars, social security cards and a few “transportation passes.” These passes allowed family members to travel from station to station, and could only be purchased at the payday advance/check cashing station. Passes quickly became a sought-after commodity.
What I noticed first about the simulation is the amount of time spent waiting. You wait at the bank to cash your husband’s paycheck — after paying fees to open the account in the first place — then you wait in line to buy transportation passes, then more waiting to pay your utilities and so on.
After the first week, we were already behind financially. Because we hadn’t been able to buy any transportation passes during the first week, my husband was unemployed by the end of the second.
At the end of the third week, we were homeless and had moved in with our neighbors to pool funds. The problem was, we had enough money to buy food and now had the transportation tickets to get to the stations, but didn’t have the time to wait in lines. We spent the fourth week applying for unemployment and helping the neighbors we had moved in with pay for their mortgage and utilities.
In the discussion following the simulation, Kimberly LoVano, research coordinator at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, said something that summed up my experience with the simulation.
“Being in poverty can be a full-time job,” she said.
This simulation worked to exasperate the issue that there are not enough hours in the day to make ends meet.
The simulation articulated there is no time for long-term thinking when living in poverty — everything goes into keeping your house for another month, buying another week of food, not saving for college or retirement.
Time is the biggest commodity low-income families cannot afford. What doesn’t cost you money, costs daylight. You live on other people’s or office’s schedules, and you cannot move toward financial stability without the ability to live independently.
I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in poverty and, even after this simulation, I still don’t. But maybe I understand that struggle a little better than before.