BY NOAH HOWELL
I’m stressed and overwhelmed as I prepare to clock out of work for the week. Next month’s rent is due in only a couple of days, but I’m behind on my utility payments and still need to buy groceries for the coming week. The good news? It’s payday. The bad news? My $350 weekly paycheck isn’t nearly enough to cover all my expenses, even with my husband’s monthly disability check — our only other source of income.
With two kids to care for, aged 7 and 9, there is a zero percent chance my family can pay these bills on time. Should I fall behind on rent payments and risk eviction? Should I ignore the electric bill and risk the power being cut off? How will I be able to afford groceries for the coming week? All of these questions spiraled through my mind as I came to a harrowing conclusion: my family and I could likely end up homeless very soon.
Suddenly, I heard a whistle blow, and a hush fell over the room.
It was over.
For the past hour, I’d participated in the Missouri Community Action Network’s poverty simulation, facilitated by Crisis Assistance Ministry. The simulation takes you through a simulated month in the lives of people living in poverty, split up into four 15-minute segments, each segment representing one week. I took on the identity of Zola Zuppot, a fictional 53-year-old woman whose experiences and circumstances were drawn from the real-life experiences of someone experiencing poverty.
Zola, whose husband is disabled and confined to their home, became the legal guardian of her two grandchildren after her daughter was incarcerated. The children’s father was not in the picture; therefore, the brunt of this responsibility fell on Zola. Between Zola’s low-paying job and her husband’s monthly disability checks, the household of four had just over $2,000/month to live on, putting the family below the Federal Poverty Line ($30,000/year for a household of four). With not enough household income, it’s no surprise that I was unable to make ends meet and pay all my expenses; I ended the simulation with less than half of what I needed to pay rent for the next month.
American political rhetoric surrounding issues of poverty is too often dominated by individualism and a failure to recognize systemic factors that drive cycles of poverty. Poverty is often seen as a personal failure rather than a systemic one. The poverty simulation aims to dispel this mindset by putting you directly in the shoes of someone trapped in said cycles of poverty. For one hour, you feel the stress, the urgency, and the hopelessness that accompanies the experience of poverty.
Once you’ve felt that—once you’ve experienced having the odds stacked against you at every turn—it changes your perspective. That’s the power of the simulation: its ability to instill empathy among people who may not have experienced poverty themselves.
As you progress through the simulation, you very quickly realize a cruel paradox exists in the American economy: it is extremely expensive to be poor in the United States. You also realize it is incredibly difficult to climb out of poverty once you’re there. Take Zola, for example: she has no college degree, speaks English as her second language, and is nearing retirement age. She essentially has no opportunity for upward mobility in terms of income. Her husband cannot work, and now she has double the number of mouths to feed in her household. Through no fault of her own, the outlook for Zola and her family is bleak without a strong safety net in place.
Zola’s case isn’t some imaginary horror story. Each character’s story in the simulation is crafted directly from social workers’ casework. These scenarios represent the norms of poverty rather than the exceptions.
In fact, Zola represents one of 37.9 million Americans living below the Federal Poverty Line in 2021. That’s about 11.6% of the total U.S. population. By OECD standards, the U.S. poverty rate is at 15.1%, much higher than other comparable nations, including the U.K. (11.2%), Switzerland (9.9%), Canada (8.6%), France (8.4%), and Denmark (6.5%).
When you look at the staggering numbers, it becomes difficult to ignore the role our socioeconomic systems play in creating poverty. And once you actually put yourself into the shoes of someone experiencing poverty, even for just an hour, it becomes impossible.
If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking of poverty as a personal failure, I encourage you to try this simulation. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see if you change your mind.
Noah Howell is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate who works with the Civic Engagement team at Crisis Assistance Ministry. A Charlotte native, he is deeply passionate about exploring potential solutions to homelessness and poverty in his community.