On November 17, a sort of chaos took over the Student Union as students took part in a poverty simulation hosted by the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). Eviction officers turned over the chairs that had represented students’ homes, students scrambled to gather money to pay their rent, and participants frantically ran in and out of a makeshift jail.
The poverty simulation is designed to familiarize students with what it is like to live in poverty. Participants are assigned to different family structures and must make it through the month (in this case, an hour-long period) by keeping their home secure, buying the required amount of food each week, keeping their utilities on, making loan payments, paying for clothing and other expenses, and keeping their children in school.
Easier said than done. Afterwards, participants described the experience as “overwhelming, stressful and a vicious cycle.”
The Isaacson family seemed to experience one misfortune after the other: they were forced to pawn kitchen appliances in order to pay their utilities, they temporarily lost their daughter to child services, and they were even sent to jail when a cop suspected them of using drugs.
Aunilie Linehan, who played the role of the 19-year-old single mother in the family, found it poignant that her character was the same age as her. When describing the simulation, she pointed out the irony that, “You have to get a job to keep your benefits, but there is no job.” Linehan’s situation was not an isolated one; One-third of all single moms in Mecklenburg County are in poverty.
The simulation was brought to UNC Charlotte over 10 years ago by Dr. Lyndon Abrams of the College of Education. Abrams wrote a grant in conjunction with the MRC through the Chancellor’s Diversity Fund. His goal is to increase people’s awareness of others’ living conditions.
“When we understand poverty, we can do something about it, and when the folks with the least amount of wealth’s situation improves, everyone’s situation improves,” Abrams said.
For many students and residents of Charlotte, the poverty simulation hits close to home. Mary Munn, a student who played the father-figure in the Isaacson family, was interested in the simulation because she “experienced some of this growing up.” 21.3 percent of children in Charlotte live below the poverty line, and there is a mere four percent chance that Charlotte residents born into poverty will escape it.
During the wrap-up, the volunteer running the Quick Cash stand admitted to purposefully favoring students of color. He was more likely to give these students their checks or keep the stand open for them, he said, “to relay the message that there are layers of oppression.” People of color are disproportionately affected by poverty. In Charlotte, more than one-fourth of Hispanic families and one-fifth of black families are in poverty, compared to less than 5 percent of white families.
Despite the frustration and solemnity of the day, Abrams ended it on an inspiring note.
“[People affected by poverty] don’t need our pity, but they need our support,” Abrams said.
Students can help those in need by volunteering through websites like www.volunteermatch.org, writing letters and educating others. Those who are interested in continuing the conversation on poverty may attend part two of the simulation on Tuesday, November 28.