Learning how the poor COPE with poverty

Could you do it? Could you survive for a month as the member of a family at or below the national poverty level, with only limited resources of time and money and the daily need to make decisions about childcare, transportation, safety and which bills to pay?

About 55 Annual Conference attendees had the chance to find out by taking the Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE) challenge during an afternoon enrichment session Thursday. 

Poverty simulation participant fills out paperwork at a homeless shelter
A participant in the Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE) enrichment session at Florida's Annual Conference portrays a homeless mother filling out paperwork at a homeless shelter. Photos by Cindy Skop.

Developed by the training and assistance nonprofit Think Tank Inc., COPE is a simulation event that offers participants a glimpse into the lives of low-income individuals and families, including obstacles they face, decisions they must make and the consequences that impact these families every day.

It was among more than a dozen Annual Conference enrichment sessions offered over two days on a wide variety of topics, including evangelism and mission ideas and how to start ministries for Alzheimer’s support, creation care and sex offenders.

The two-hour poverty simulation exercise was conducted by Meghan Killingsworth,  a COPE director and the associate director for Family Stabilization at St. Luke’s UMC, Orlando.

Assisting her were 26 volunteers from First UMC, Winter Park, St. Luke’s and South Street Ministries in Orlando. Volunteers served as members of a low-income neighborhood, including a faith-based food pantry, social service agencies, pawn shops and stores that accept food stamps.

During the simulation, participants are assigned a role as a member of an impoverished family group of varying sizes and backgrounds. “Juanita Thirteen,” for example, was the main breadwinner in a family of five that included her two undocumented immigrant cousins, disabled husband and 2-month-old baby. Grandparents, drug-addicted siblings and even school-age children are also available roles. 

A doll on a chair represents a hungry baby in a poverty simulation exercise for Annual Conference attendees.

Family groups have four 15-minute “weeks” to get their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and safety met. Even with resources, such as belongings that could be pawned for cash and a car for transportation, families must make decisions about childcare, whether to buy food or pay the rent, how to get to a minimum-wage job on time and sometimes whether to skirt the laws.

Conducted at General Conference 2012 and then brought to St. Luke’s, this training has been organized by Killingsworth and her team for circuit court judges, elementary school teachers, camp staffs and mission trip participants.

“We’ve found that among middle-class participants, the focus is on achievement,” she says. “They want to win.”

But for many attendees, winning – pulling oneself out of poverty – was not an option. Just trying to survive was the main goal amid unending and complicated childcare, menacing bill collectors, hovering law enforcement and unforgiving bosses at an across-town minimum wage job. Completing the two-page forms – for jobs, food assistance, bank accounts and clinic care – frustrated and stymied many participants.

“I was wasting my time on a lot of the things I was doing,” noted one participant. “And I discovered that I didn’t eat the whole month.”

A participant in the COPE enrichment session studies his resources in a visit to a mock pawn shop as part of a poverty simulation exercise.

The training concludes with a whole-group sharing session in which participants discuss how they fared and what they observed.
“I felt the people in the social agencies didn’t care and didn’t help. I felt like a number and it was humiliating,” said Mike Bowen, of First UMC, Port St. John.

“I can see why people are lined up at our [food pantry] door,” said a participant who serves as a mission director at her local church.

“I felt like it was a losing battle,” said another. “I was never able to gain my equilibrium.”

In a show of hands, no family group successfully paid all the monthly bills and at least a quarter used questionable and sometimes illegal methods – whether falsifying job applications or relying on the local drug dealer for childcare – to survive.

But even for those who didn’t overcome poverty, the experience was eye-opening. 

“A participant at a previous session noted, ‘All the things I thought were excuses were actually explanations of a life I had no familiarity with,’ “ Killingsworth said.

Such awareness and better understanding of the complexities of poverty will help the church communities that serve low-income families, said Killingsworth, citing nationally known local church proponent Bill Hybels.

“When the local church works right, it is the hope for the world.”

-- Colleen Hart is a freelance writer based in Cocoa.

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