In 2016, 26.4 percent of the 33,046 residents of Pike County live below the federal poverty line, and Troy University students experienced a fraction of those struggles during a poverty simulation on Nov. 1.
According to Alabama Possible, the organization responsible for the demonstration, more than 900,000 Americans live in poverty.
“The first time I did (the simulation), I could really see how it impacted me and the people I did it with,” Kristina Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible, said. “It’s something that I call back to days, weeks, and even years later.”
At the start of the simulation, called Realville, each “family” was given a packet that contained their earnings and allowances for the month. From there, students were instructed to formulate a budget, go to work, take care of the family and handle unexpected financial strains: a flat tire, getting arrested or having their home broken into.
“A lot of the families were struggling to get their kids to school, or if something happened at school, like Spring Break or getting suspended or sick, these kids just got left behind while Mom and Dad went out and tried to take care of things,” Jonathan Cellon, coordinator of learning initiatives and the sheriff of Realville, said.
The simulation spanned a month’s time, with each week lasting 12 minutes. Within those 12 minutes, the full-time working adults spent seven minutes at work, part-time workers spent four minutes at work, and the remaining time was spent paying bills, buying groceries or bartering at the pawn shop or pay-day advance center.
The city of Realville included an employer, a public school, child care and social services, a check cashing and pay-day advance center, a pawn shop, a utility company, a police department, a clinic, a bank and a grocery store.
“We have all these resources because we strive to be as much like real life as we can,” Scott said.
Scott said the family units are designed to model real-life situations; there are unmarried couples with small children, single-parent households and three-generation homes. Some of the family members were also labeled as “disabled.”
One family included TROY students Samuel Adam, a graduate student with a Bachelor’s degree in social science from Washington County, and Bree Fluker, a sophomore rehabilitation major from Headland, Alabama, playing the role of grandparents taking care of their granddaughter because her mother was incarcerated for drug use.
“We were evicted,” Adam said. “We just got back in our home.”
“We live in a pretty bad neighborhood,” Fluker said. “People keep bringing drugs to our home.” She also said this simulation made her realize how hard her mom worked to provide for their family.
The adults of the households took drastic measures to survive. After getting off work, one parent sold the family jewelry to a pawn shop and haggled the price from $30 up to $80. Another mom sold the family’s two television sets and microwave oven, and yet another tried to sell the refrigerator and stove but was turned away.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2016 poverty guideline for a family of four is an annual income of less than $24,300.
“It’s way too easy for us to say if someone made better choices, then they wouldn’t have found themselves in this situation, or if they just went out and got a job, then they would be able to take care of their family,” Scott said. “What we learn in this is that sometimes there are no good choices, or it’s a decision between two bad choices, or even though you have a job, you still don’t have enough money to feed your family and take care of all your other obligations.”
She said the main objective of this simulation is to get students to experience what it would be like to live on a low-income salary and to build empathy and understanding.
“There are a lot of assumptions around people that are in need or in poverty,” Cellon said. “This simulation kind of puts you in the shoes of someone who is making decisions around managing life and finances and bumps in the road.
“For our students, who may not have an experience in real-life settings and are here to improve their education, I think it’s important to understand the complexities of not only managing life as an adult, but also managing life as someone who has less means.”