A City Steps Up: Savannah Confronts Poverty

Jocelyn Jennings

Savannah is trying to help Jocelyn Jennings' family out of poverty using a holistic approach. Neva Grant, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Neva Grant, NPR

Savannah, Ga., is one of the oldest and loveliest cities in America. Called "the Little Easy" for its charming historic district and hospitality, Savannah nonetheless grapples with stubborn poverty and crime higher than that of many larger cities.

A Morning in Poverty

Participants spend a simulated "month" role-playing as low-income families. Scroll down to find out how poverty simulations work.

Business leader

Businessman Billy Carver attempts to get city assistance during a poverty simulation. Step Up Savannah hide caption

itoggle caption Step Up Savannah
Pawn Shop

Staffing the pawnshop, Lindsay Trout offers less than half the value of each item a participant brings in for cash. Step Up Savannah hide caption

itoggle caption Step Up Savannah

Easing poverty is a mainstay of the city's agenda. The mayor says the city can't solve its problems unless government, businesses and low-income residents all cooperate to confront the entrenched reasons for poverty.

Each month, the city sponsors "poverty simulations" to raise awareness among its citizens. Government leaders, heads of businesses and civic groups spend an evening role-playing as people living in, or on the brink of, poverty.

The experience has inspired some participants to join the city's anti-poverty effort, called "STEP UP." Currently, volunteers are working with the city to address the needs of 25 impoverished families in an integrated way. That means addressing health and day care needs, job training and transportation.

The city intends for STEP UP to act as a model for serving dozens — and perhaps hundreds — of poor families in coming years.

This is the first installment in which NPR visits places in America that are helping people fight persistent poverty in a wealthy nation.

How a Poverty Simulation Works

Sculptures i i

Life-sized sculptures plastered with pictures and words representing aspects of poverty are used to stimulate public discussion. Missouri Association for Community Action hide caption

itoggle caption Missouri Association for Community Action
Sculptures

Life-sized sculptures plastered with pictures and words representing aspects of poverty are used to stimulate public discussion.

Missouri Association for Community Action

Poverty simulations give participants a taste of what it might be like to live in a low-income family. Leaving their real-world identities behind, groups of 40-85 participants assume new roles and life situations for around three hours. They must navigate daily tasks that would be familiar, if not for the limitations of having far fewer resources to draw on.

The Missouri Association for Community Action has designed a poverty simulation kit that includes 26 unique family profiles typical of Americans experiencing poverty. The kit is used by local agencies around the country to bring together government leaders, social service providers, educators, legal system personnel, civic groups and the business community to build a shared framework for understanding poverty.

Sample Family Profile

Mother, 19, high school dropout, unemployed, would like to go back to school and graduate.

 

Son, 1, child by mother's previous boyfriend. In good health.

 

Setting: You are renting to own a mobile home. Your live-in boyfriend contributes half of rent and utilities. You receive welfare aid and food stamps but get no support from the child's father. Your mobile home needs repairs that you cannot afford now. Your boyfriend has an older car that often needs repairs. You do not currently have a phone.

 

Income: $234/mo. in welfare and $120/mo. in Food Stamps.

Housing: $235

Utilities: $150

Food/wk.: $45

Clothing/mo.: $25

Miscellaneous/mo.: $100

Examples of Staff Roles

People who have personal experience living with poverty "turn the tables" and become the service providers at various community agencies.

Utility Collector: The first two weeks, you sit in your office collecting bills and sending out shut-off notices. People may use their welfare cash benefits to pay their utility bills. Later, you circulate among the families to collect gas, electric and phone fees.

Schoolteacher: You have many tasks, too many students and not enough money! You attempt to run a quiet, orderly classroom and stay in contact with parents — usually to ask for money or supplies.

 

Pawnbroker: Families come to you to pawn their appliances and furniture. You offer them less than half the value of each item and charge them a fee if they wish to redeem the items.

During four 15-minute "weeks," those assigned adult roles try to maintain their home, feed their family, send children to school, keep their utilities on, make loan payments, pay for daily expenses like transportation, handle unexpected emergencies and figure out how to access local support and resources. Participants playing children clamor for attention, go to school and imagine the trials of poverty from a child's perspective.

Each family receives props like money, food stamps and transportation cards. They also live under certain constraints. If they have a job, they must spend seven out of the 15-minutes in each "week" sitting in the designated "workplace" or risk getting fired. If they don't have a bank account, they have to cash checks (and pay extra fees) at the "Quick Cash" outlet. Failure to pay their mortgage bills means the loan officer may serve them a foreclosure notice. "Luck of the Draw" cards can bestow an unexpected windfall, cause the breakdown of their only car or serve notice of a sudden school closure.

The staff who play the bureaucrats and cashiers are often people who have direct experience living in poverty. They draw from their real-world experiences to portray representatives from the local utility company, mortgage company, grocery store and child care facility, among other agencies. Other staff, such as the "illegal activities" person, commit robbery, buy and sell drugs or food stamps, and entice children into illegal activities. There is even a police officer to roam the room and respond to disputes.

The simulation kit prepared by the Missouri Association for Community Action isn't meant to be comprehensive. Salient issues such as health care, child support enforcement and the foster care system are not addressed for fear of cramming too much into an hour's session. However, local agencies often tailor the simulation to the characteristics of their communities and to participants' needs.

In just one evening of imitation poverty, real emotions build up. "Most people start off confident in their abilities," says Teresa Wilson of Missouri Association for Community Action. "But they often become angry and frustrated, because they feel like they're not being allowed access to resources they usually take for granted. Some ask, 'Why don't I have a debit card in here?' and I have to remind them they don't even have a bank account!"

Afterwards, trained facilitators lead participants and staff in a discussion. Participants reflect on their own ability to cope in a "state of poverty" and examine the issues and emotions raised by the interaction between the "poor" and community agencies. Staff sometimes share personal testimonials about their experiences in poverty.

Facilitators say significant attitude changes can occur during the brief but intense simulations. Many participants report that they gain a better understanding of the obstacles faced by low-income families. "I've worked with teachers who gain a better understanding of how reasons of poverty may cause students' behavioral problems in the classroom," says Wilson.

The experience helps build a shared framework that community members can draw upon to talk about poverty. Sometimes, participants decide to take personal action and generate ideas for working together to better support low-income families as they transition from government assistance to working independence.

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