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Learning what poverty's really like

Ed Yourdon

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, 14 percent of people in Missouri live below the poverty line. That’s almost 900,000 Missourians. KBIA’s Harum Helmy finds out how one nonprofit organization attempts to educate the 86 percent about what it’s like to be on the other side.

It’s about 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night and a little more than 80 people are frantically running around inside Columbia College’s Dorsey Gym, struggling to get by.

“Could I get something to pawn?”

“Something to what?”

“Something to pawn. Get some cash.”

They’re trying to get to work…

“Is there a reason why you didn’t make it to work last week?”

“What? I did come to work last week!”

...but are generally down on their luck.

“We haven’t eaten in three weeks and I’m due in two months.”

Fortunately for these people, this is just a simulation. Angela Hirsch is the community services director of Central Missouri Community Action. Along with about two dozen volunteers, Hirsch runs the poverty simulation. She says most of the participants have never lived below the poverty line. In this hour-long program, every 15-minute period represents a week of living with limited income. All the participants I talked to grew up in middle classes families. About the simulation, they all agree:

“This is stressful.”

“I’m stressed out.”

“That was stressful.”
“How stressful?”
“Very. Everything’s stressful.”

Hirsch reminded everyone at the beginning of the event that none of the more than 20 family scenarios played out at the simulation have been made up.

“These are real people. So please keep that in mind as you’re going through the simulation. It has the look and feel of a game, but poverty is not a game for more than 55,000 people in Central Missouri who live in poverty,” Hirsch said.

It’s certainly not a game to Ann Ojeh, one of the simulation’s volunteers. She lives on a limited income. In the simulation, she played the part of a generous volunteer in a religious-based homeless shelter.

“It’s kind cool to get the reactions of different people. I have one family that started out homeless, one of them, he didn’t know what an EBT card is. It’s pretty shocking to me,” Ojeh said.

At the post-simulation debriefing, organizers explained that the EBT card allows the government to issue benefits in the form of a payment card. Many participants said they were shocked by some of the decisions they had to make to survive the hour. Some stole, for example. One asked her role-play daughter to drop out of school to take care of her sibling.

“Whose baby’s been left at daycare?!” One of the organizers yelled during the event.

One role-play teenager willingly went to make-believe juvenile detention so his make-believe family didn’t have to feed him.

Columbia College student Santana Figueroa played the role of an unemployed mother. She says she was surprised by how much she still had to do to take care of her family.

“I think I’d still be wary of people standing on the side of the roads, but I’ll also think of it in a different way, you know, I don’t know what their story is,” Figueroa said.

The Missouri Association for Community Action holds the patent for the poverty simulation. Angela Hirsch says there’s at least one kit of the program in every U.S. state, including a few other countries, as far as Singapore.

Harum Helmy started as KBIA's Health and Wealth reporter in January 2013. She has previously worked at the station as a news assistant, helping assign and edit stories by student reporters. Harum grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia and graduated from MU with degrees in journalism and anthropology in 2011. She's trying to finish up an MA in journalism.
Ryan served as the KBIA News Director from February 2011 to September 2023