C.O.P.E. simulates poverty experience for community

A volunteer mans the Gas Stop and Mini Mart booth for the “Cost of Poverty” simulation by Strive 2 Thrive, a local program designed to help residents in need bring themselves out of poverty.

A volunteer mans the Gas Stop and Mini Mart booth for the “Cost of Poverty” simulation by Strive 2 Thrive, a local program designed to help residents in need bring themselves out of poverty.

ALBANY, Ga. — Recently some community members were given an up-close look at what thousands of low-income residents experience every day.

Strive 2 Thrive, a local initiative aimed at reducing local poverty, presented the Cost of Poverty Experience, or C.O.P.E., Thursday at First United Methodist Church. According to Ausha Jackson, director of Strive 2 Thrive, the simulation is designed to enlighten community members and government officials to the realities of those who live their lives in poverty.

The 60 or so participants were grouped into virtual “families,” then assigned their “situation.” The families were a mixed lot — there were single and two-parent households, and ages varied significantly. In some cases, one or more individuals in the group were given a physical or emotional difficulty to be dealt with in the course of the simulation.

Each group knew from its instructions if its family owned a car or if the family members had to choose between the bus or walking. Those who owned a car would purchase gas at a pre-determined location and price. Bus riders paid a price as well, while walkers would be penalized by limiting the time required to complete their tasks.

Some household heads were lucky enough to have a “job” and so were a assigned a specific salary. The rest had to make do on welfare and other social services. Cards were issued to represent possessions such as furniture, TVs or stereo equipment.

The families would need to survive for an entire “month,” having to pit the resources they were given with their own individual situations. The challenges included feeding their families, keeping a roof over their heads, winning or keeping their jobs, and taking care of children. For practical purposes, each of the four weeks was compressed to a 10-minute period, plus a 5-minute planning conference at the beginning, and in-between each month.

Frantically, the families put their heads together, and when their first planning session ended, they spread across the gymnasium, which was set like a giant Monopoly board. Similar to a low-income community, the simulation included such stops as “day care,” “human services,” “employer,” “landlord,” “school,” “jail,” “pawn” and “gas.” participants jumped from place to place as necessary and as directed by written instructions and volunteers manning the stops.

“OK, we’ll give you a try,” the ‘employer told a young mother, and set her promptly to moving wadded sheets of paper behind the table. Just as quickly, she fired another for intolerable slowness at the same task. An applicant was turned away for lack of a ball point pen.

“I can’t sign off on you today,” the probation officer told one young man. “You have to get your slip from the health clinic,” The man struck out across the gym for his slip.

Mike’s Gas Stop charged $40 per week or $100 for a month and punched the participants’ cards accordingly.

Players aged 13 or older could buy a bus pass for the week for $20. Walking was free, but players needed a “walking pass” from the Community Services Office each week and had to wait two minutes to receive it. The wait served as a “time penalty” for being a pedestrian.

Players haggled with the pawn shop owner, waited in line for groceries, did battle with bureaucrats, and employers itching to fire them for being out with sick children. They paid their rents and utilities on time if they had the money, and went to social services and doctor visits for themselves and for their children. It wasn’t easy, most said afterward.

“How many of you bought groceries for your families every week?” asked Ausha Jackson, when the simulation had ended. Two hands went up.

“And how many of you made your appointments on time?” There were no hands this time.

Complaints from participants included having to give up telephone service to buy groceries, the difficulties of finding a job with a jail record, and being cheated on a rent payment.

“All I could do was pray for those who are really living those situations and thank God that I was not,” said one of the simulation participants.

“It was a really powerful experience,” said Brenda Adams, another participant. “At first I thought (the simulation) was disorganized, but as I got further into it, it struck me how close to reality it seems to be.”

Adams said she plans to join with Strive 2 Thrive as an “Ally,” an individual who will offer advice and guidance to “Circle Leaders,” those striving to rise from poverty through the Strive 2 Thrive system.

According to Jackson, the current group of 13 families or “Circle Leaders” in the Strive 2 Thrive program will graduate the special 16-week course in December. After graduation, the families will be matched with two to four “allies per family. Allies have committed to advise and guide the Circle Leaders for 18 months in the attempt to journey out of poverty, Jackson said.

A Circle Leader is at the center of various support systems such as “various types of training,” “assessment,” “meetings,” and “Allies,” Jackson said. She emphasized that Circle Leaders are always responsible for their own success or failure.

“This is a hand up and not a handout,” Jackson said.