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Experiencing poverty

MONMOUTH -- Mary Grim picked up a small chalkboard and slowly wrote the word "scared" and underlined it.

The "Locke Family," Dwayne Hilty, Doug Gouge, Mary Grim and Irina Burbin, from left, talk about how to budget their money during a "weekend" of a poverty simulation exercise held Thursday at Western Oregon University.

Photo by Pete Strong

The "Locke Family," Dwayne Hilty, Doug Gouge, Mary Grim and Irina Burbin, from left, talk about how to budget their money during a "weekend" of a poverty simulation exercise held Thursday at Western Oregon University.

September 19, 2012

MONMOUTH -- Mary Grim picked up a small chalkboard and slowly wrote the word "scared" and underlined it.

Grim was one of nearly 100 other Polk County elected officials, school employees and human service workers participating in a "poverty simulation" Thursday at Western Oregon University.

Participants were asked to write the emotions they were feeling on the chalkboards as the simulation proceeded.

Polk County Commission on Children and Families and Salem nonprofit CoActive Connections teamed up to sponsor the event, which in 80 minutes simulated one month of living in poverty. The simulation's goal was to help participants develop a better understanding of the circumstances families in poverty face.

Each "week" was 17 minutes long. Families had that amount of time to go to work, care for their children and dependents, attend school, run errands and pay bills.

The Pacific Room at Western Oregon University's Werner University Center was transformed into a community with stores, a school, a pawn shop, a bank and mortgage lender, a "quick cash" store, social services department, interfaith service organization, a jail and an employer. Also, a career criminal was skulking around, looking for opportunities to victimize people.

"Weekends" were three minutes long and ideally would be spent for "family time."

However, there was nothing ideal about the circumstances most families found themselves in.

During the simulation, Grim was a 36-year-old unemployed mother, "Linda," in a family of four. Her husband, "Larry," worked full time for minimum wage and her 15-year-old daughter, "Lily," attended school and worked part time. Linda had to stay at home with her father, "Lester," who is disabled and can't be left alone or completely care for himself.

She needed to pay bills, but can't leave the house, and worse yet, often doesn't have enough money to pay them.

The first hiccup is that transportation -- in the form of $1 "transportation passes" -- wasn't accounted for in their bills. A pass is needed each time they leave "home" -- a circle of fold out chairs.

"If you look at our family, they barely make a little bit more than what their bills are," said Doug Gouge, who works in Polk County's school-based health centers and had the role of Lester in the simulation. "It's like gas isn't considered in that."

It put them behind before they got started, but it gets worse. They soon faced the consequences of not being eligible for a bank account. They could cash their checks at the quick cash center, but at a price, sometimes up to 20 percent.

Participants were asked to write the emotions they were feeling during the simulation on a provided chalkboard.

Photo by Pete Strong

Participants were asked to write the emotions they were feeling during the simulation on a provided chalkboard.

"One of the most appalling things is predatory lending - the quick cash place," Grim said. "They charge you 20 percent to cash a check. For so many folks in this situation -- we can't have a bank account -- that perpetuates the (cycle of) constantly paying, paying, paying to even get the money that you've earned."

In the beginning, though, their biggest challenges are time and transportation.

"I can't be left alone," Gouge said of his character, Lester. "That's why we spend a lot of time just sitting here."

Meanwhile Dwayne Hilty, the pastor of West Salem's Soma Church who had the role of Larry, was at work, earning money, but not able to run any errands as part of the family's plan to make it through the month.

"She's (Linda) having to do everything and she's got her dad with her," Hilty said. "It's frustrating because I can't do anything to help right now."

As the minutes ticked down at his full-time job - seven minutes each week - Hilty scanned the lines at places he can cash Larry's check.

"I will probably go to the shortest line between the bank and the quick cash," he said, and it looked like quick cash had fewer people in line. "I'm losing money by doing that."

In the interest of time, they also consider keeping their daughter home from school or leaving Lester home alone.

"Suddenly, we were seeing where we could make concessions," Hilty said. "We are feeling the pressure to (let go of) a moral obligation."

The brief "weekend" periods were used for planning the next week, not "family time."

By week three, Grim realized the family would have to forgo paying a major bill. She checked off the list of paid bills -- the utilities or the mortgage were not among them.

"We will get a utility shut off notice this week," Grim said.

"What about the mortgage?" asked Irina Burbin, who was Lily in the simulation.

"The mortgage has to come second," Grim said. "We are doing the best we can."

It was during that week that Grim picked up the chalkboard and wrote the word scared.

Frustrated, confused, overwhelmed and even hungry could be added, according to many simulation participants. Evoking those emotions was the goal of the simulation, said Brent DeMoe, the PCCCF manager.

He said participants would now be able to offer suggestions to improve services in the county -- as well as move forward with a changed perspective.

"I work with a lot of families who have these kinds of obstacles," Gouge said. "This took it out of my head and allowed me to feel just a small bit of it. ... You can feel the stress of the situation."

Simulation Scenario

The Locke-Louis family's situation:

A family of four: husband Larry Locke, 36, employed; wife Linda Locke, 36, unemployed; daughter Lily Locke, 15, attending high school and works part time; and Linda's father, Lester Louis, disabled and can't care for himself.

The family's income is: $1,241 monthly after taxes from Larry's full-time job, $210 in food stamps monthly, and Lester's $330 disability check.

Total: $1,781

The family's monthly bills: housing -- $630; utilities -- $275; food -- $110 (per week), clothing -- $60, miscellaneous -- $170; car loan -- $200. Total: $1,775.

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