Living in Poverty: An Eye Opening Experience

My name is Connie Chen, and I am a 16-year-old immigrant from China. My parents and two younger siblings came to the states two short years ago. My father was recently laid off, and he no longer qualifies to receive unemployment income. My mother has a full-time job, but her paycheck doesn’t cover our expenses. I am also seven months pregnant, and of the five of us, only my brother and sister speak English.

Connie and the fictional Chen family are one of the many stories adapted in the Multicultural Leadership Program’s (MCLP) annual poverty simulation. This year, the experience was co-sponsored by Leadership McLean County (LMC), and took place at the Lawrence Irvin Neighborhood Center (LINC) in west Bloomington. It is part of the core curriculum for both programs, and is always open to public participation.

The simulation was led by Carolyn Hansen, Extension Educator for 4-H Youth Development at the University of Illinois, and made possible through the help of countless volunteers. In her nonprofit work, Hansen assists poverty-stricken families on a daily basis, and their all-too-real—and common—struggles. She says that more than 50% of Americans are just two or less paychecks away from falling below the poverty line. Citizens of Bloomington-Normal endure poverty and homelessness at a similar rate.

“In fact,” said Hansen, “McLean County’s poverty rate is .8% higher than the national average of 8.4%.”

During the simulation, the LINC gymnasium was transformed into a virtual city including a bank, shelter, school, grocery store, a “quick cash” business, a potential employer, community action center, utilities company, childcare facility, pawn shop, police station, health department, transportation center, and mortgage company. Participants were segmented into families, including a few single-person units. Before the simulation began, Hansen took a moment to help put participants in the frame of mind of a poverty-stricken family.

She told them: “You no longer have the job you walked in here with today. You do not own the same car. In fact, you may not even own a car. This means you depend on public transportation. You are unsure where your next meal will come from, and are struggling to meet your own basic needs, and for those of your family.”

Olemuel Ashford, a systems analyst and team leader for State Farm, serves as a curriculum developer for MCLP. This was his fourth straight year participating or volunteering in the simulation, and this time he ran the public school.

“At the beginning of the month, attendance was good, but as time went on, they stopped showing up,” Ashford said, describing the simulation.

Often, this happened because the children were needed to help their families at home. The Chens were no exception. They leaned on Connie to help pay bills, deposit checks, and even haggle at the pawn shop. Her younger siblings were pulled out of school to help translate for their parents. The family was evicted by the third week, prompting them to consider resorting to illegal activities to help make ends meet.

Following the simulation, participants discussed their experiences, and the stressors they endured.

“It was a race where we were always competing against time.”

“We were robbed in the first week, and after that I felt useless.”

“There was little direction, and the stress got higher as time went on.”

“It felt like nobody cared.”

However, along with those struggles, there was camaraderie and teamwork.

“One family welcomed us into their home after we got evicted, and we helped out by paying for the weekly meals.”

“We slowly began to understand what we needed to do to act as a community.”

At the end of the night, the most common descriptors used about the event were “jarring” and “eye-opening.” Participants also indicated that they began to understand how many things they take for granted that serve as daily challenges for others, such as feeding their family, procuring transportation, and paying the mortgage.

Perhaps the most important impact of the simulation was to change this group of leaders’ perspective and knowledge of what they can do to help, and why they should act.

“What is one thing you can do to make a difference? What is one way you can make others’ lives better?”

For those who want to make a difference, the Bloomington-Normal community has numerous resources to assist those in need and combat hunger, homelessness, and families fighting poverty. These resources are always in need of individuals interested in donating time and/or funds, and include Mid-Central Community Action Center, Project Oz, Providing Access to Help (PATH), UNITY Community, Home Sweet Home Mission, The Jesus House, and the Western Avenue Community Center, among others.