What Congress and Vincentians Shared

by | Jul 22, 2014 | Poverty: Analysis and Responses, Systemic change

What do  Congress and Vincentians share? There are probably many different opinions on this. But as I viewed a picture in a recent  Washington Post story I was transported back to a meeting of the Vincentian Family  in Indianapolis in 2011. The Conference was entitled “Bridges out of Poverty” and began with a “poverty simulation”

The Washington Post story “On Capitol Hill, a brief simulation of what poor Americans go through each day” was about some members of Congress who took part in a poverty simulation exercise as a way of gaining some insight into what real people experience. In 2011 over 100 participants at our “Bridges Out of Poverty” meeting took part in basically the same sort of exercise. (In fact the room was very similar in size!)

U.S. Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) had just finished voting on highway construction funding before he was rushed to a meeting room and thrust into the anxiety-ridden world of Ann and Albert.

Poverty simulationThe picture in the Washington Post article depicted him playing the role of Albert in a simulation exercise taking place in a meeting room of the U.S. Capitol. A congressional staffer was playing Ann.

The role play was a part of an hour-long exercise to help those working on Capitol Hill understand the day-to-day life of low-income families. About 60 staffers and interns, in pinstripe suits and pencil skirts, were pretending to be poor.

Surrounding them were meeting tables that represented pit stops: The homeless shelter. The bank. The pawn shop. The grocery store. Working in family units, each group had to figure out how to make it through a month as a poor person. In the exercise, one week lasted fifteen minutes.

The poverty simulation came to the Capitol in hopes of giving a bipartisan group of members of Congress a glimpse into the life of the poor, said Ann Pride, the director of federal government relations at Entergy, an energy company that worked with Catholic Charities to put on the event.

In my mind’s eye I could see members of the Vincentian Family doing that very exercise. (In fact I am certainly have exactly the same kind of picture buried somewhere in my hard drive.)

A FamVin post at the time wrote… “To help us gain a deeper appreciation for poverty we participated in a “Poverty Simulation Exercise” led by the St. Vincent Health members. This exercise put us in a simulated state of poverty and helped us gain a better appreciation for the difficulties and trials that those in poverty face every day. Fortunately for us at the end of the exercise we could move back out of poverty; however this is not as easy for those living it daily. This was an excellent way to prepare for the main presentations on systemic change.”

From the Washington Post article again…Kildee’s simulated family strategized that he needed to go to the bank to cash his unemployment check, then use transportation passes to go find a job and work at the “General Employer” table.

“You need to go now!” a staffer told him. He had only seven minutes left in the imaginary week, and the family was desperate for money.

Kildee cut through the mass of empty chairs and the congregations of suits to get to the bank. It was there he learned that Albert owed money on his mortgage and needed to pay $100. (I remember doing a similar run!)

“I can’t believe this!”

Then he rushed to the General Employer, because he was warned that tardiness would come with consequences. He made it on time. But Kildee was still a little panicked. Young staffers and interns stood behind him.

“This is really hard,” Kildee said.

“You’re telling me?” replied the staffer, also playing a role. “My house was robbed last week.”

The next week — 15 minutes later — Kildee rushed to get transportation passes so his family could get to and from work. As he walked away from that table, two people approached him. They claimed he hadn’t made his loan payment for the month.

“I paid you last week!” he said.

“That’s not in the records,” the mock loan officer told him. “Did you get a receipt?”

“No, I was in a rush,” he said.

“You can give us $100 now,” the officer said.

“I’ll give you the money, but you have to give me a receipt,” said Kildee, his hands now filled with paperwork. He had learned his lesson.

Less than a half-hour into the exercise, a staffer told Kildee that he had to leave for another event. Kildee put down his papers and his funny money and shook some hands. He was thankful for the opportunity, but also a little relieved to leave.

“Poor people are the hardest-working people in America,” he said. “It’s hard.”

For many of the Vincentian Family meeting 3 years ago it was also something of an eye-opener.

And “Fortunately for us at the end of the exercise we could move back out of poverty; however this is not as easy for those living it daily. This was an excellent way to prepare for the main presentations on systemic change.””

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