Working in Congress might be hard – but being poor is so much harder.
That’s the lesson several members of Congress and congressional staff members were able to learn in a poverty simulation held on Capitol Hill Tuesday, put together by Catholic Charities USA with the support of the Entergy Corporation. Catholic Charities has done these simulations elsewhere to give people insight into the total stress, confusion, and backbreaking toughness of being poor in America. With Congress responsible for dictating the legislation that can help, or hurt, poor and working families, this experience could not come at a better time.
At the start of the event, about 50 participants took on different identities and were told of their financial and familial circumstances before being thrust into the difficulties of life below the poverty line. During the course of each of four 10-minute “weeks,” they were responsible for paying rent, buying food, taking the children to school, and either working full-time jobs or applying to them.
At various locations around the room, participants could find a grocery store and a school (which was inconveniently closed for the entirety of week three). They could also find a homeless shelter, a juvenile hall, a jail, a payday advance service and a pawn shop, places almost exclusively patronized by America’s poor.
Emergency interruptions added to the realism, such as a “health and nutrition alert,” which demanded better and more food for the family, or a “sick child alert,” which required the participant to immediately pick up the child, represented by a baby doll, and provide childcare for the rest of the week. Often times, this meant losing a job.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) role-played as Ned, who earned only $330 a month on disability payments after a stroke left half of his body paralyzed. He said the experience of being knowingly cheated at the pawn shop and callously treated by its manager was “dehumanizing.”
Dealing with poverty’s uncertainty and anxiety left all the participants visibly exhausted. When asked, “So, how do you feel?” at the completion of the event, there was an audible and collective groan throughout the room. When asked the follow-up question, “How many families bought food all 4 weeks?” about five people in a room of almost 50 raised their hands. But when asked, “How many families were not able to buy food any week?” almost every hand was raised.
But this was just a simulation. While participants seemed to gain an appreciation for the very real experiences that the 46.5 million Americans living in poverty endure every day, the situation was temporary. Ideally, the memory of it will be permanent.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) exclaimed at the end of his first week as unemployed Albert Aber, “Poor people are the hardest working people in America.” As Congress continues to stall on minimum wage increases and paid family leave proposals, they will all do well to remember that.