My friend Joanne Curry runs the Poverty Simulation exercise for United Way Edmonton and I attended the full morning session today at the Telus Space and Science centre, eager to learn what it was all about, but not without some trepidation.
My anxiety grew along with the real stress of trying to live and navigate the basics of life through the morning of challenges. Even though I knew it was a simulation, the experience felt real as my two pretend children (ages 14 and 17) sat around (one was lured into taking drugs) while I tried to figure out how to juggle working, transportation, government benefits/assistance, paying rent and hooking utilities back up that were cut off. My success? I, as Felicia Fuentes, single mother who was left by her husband with $10 cash, no bank account and no job failed miserably, as did everyone else in the room. Zero options was the theme of my challenge. And although I found success (meager as it was) by landing a keeping a job that didn't even pay the bills, I realized quickly that "win" now cut my "family" off from much needed government support. At the end of my challenge, my family went without food for 4 weeks. It might sound ridiculous, but it drove home the fact that there are far too many Edmontonians and Canadians, desperately trying to make a better life for themselves. But, because of the loss or abandonment of a spouse, layoff, high cost of housing, utilities, childcare and more, they're barely making it or a small step away from being completely homeless.
This simulation was excellently executed with much time for needed sharing within mini groups and then the entire room for introspection (there was nearly 100 people in attendance). The group shared how their stereotypes of low income and the homeless were shattered in their minds. They felt the "system" was set up for an endless cycle of despair. We realized first hand that when you're at the poverty line, life costs more. Things get cut off, suppliers take advantage of you because your choices are fewer, you pay more for running around in circles and you almost never stand up for yourself or negotiate because you're just trying to survive.
Having been raised by a single mom myself (I have no idea how she raised the three of us with the grace and strength that she did), I had to choke back tears a few times when the simulation reminded me of her own struggles.
One lady in our group shared how as she played the role of a 9 year-old in her "family", she was keenly aware of their lack of money, lack of opportunities and more. She emotionally declared that a child shouldn't be robbed of their youth by living with and knowing their family's financial turmoil, but it's simply not an option for some.
I highly encourage you and those you know to take a few hours out of your day and attend this humbling and rewarding experience. Our city would be a more kind and empathetic place for us all knowing what it's like for far too many of our fellow citizens. As my husband says, "money is not the root of all evil; a lack of money is". Indeed, many in the simulation resorted to crime or drugs as a way to make ends meet or cope. It was only the lack of financial resources and the necessity for them and their families to survive that forced them to make unthinkable choices. Rather, it was their only option - not a choice many times. Check the simulation out and register today: http://myunitedway.ca/poverty-simulation
Joanne shared some further sobering statistics at the end of our session:
- 13,000 Edmontonians rely on the Foodbank each month, but those in need may only access this service once per month.
- 2,174 Edmontonians are without a permanent home - 279 are children and youth.
- $10.20 per hour is Alberta's minimum wage. Yet the wage per hour needed to ensure Albertans have the basic essentials for living is $17.29 per hour without benefits and $16.14 per hour with benefits.
- 52% of Alberta's children living in poverty are in households where one or more people have full-time employment.