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This Story is provided by The Herald Times

Exercise shows difficulties working poor face

By Nicole Brooks 331-4232 |
February 26, 2009

Working 36 hours a week in a cafeteria at $6.50 an hour, a young man with a GED struggles to pay child support, rent and high utility bills.

This situation and others like it are all-too real for the millions of people in this country living below poverty level. Many hold jobs; they’re among the “working poor.”

The above scenario was real for a short while Wednesday for Ivy Tech Community College student Patrick Hanlon, one of more than 70 students taking part in a poverty simulation exercise on the Bloomington campus.

“They get a glimpse of something they don’t really don’t see every day,” Hanlon said of his fellow students while sitting in “jail” after stealing another participant’s — fake — Social Security card.

“I was running out of money,” Hanlon said. “I thought I could get food stamps or something” with the card.

Students were grouped into families and had to live on limited means for four “weeks” — a week lasted 15 minutes, and in each week the families had to get to work on time, budget their income, pay the bills and take care of their children, all while “putting out fires,” said Bonnie Vesely, with the Monroe County Circles Initiative, part of the South Central Community Action Program, which hosted the simulation.

The families had to also deal with the “luck of the draw” cards Vesely handed out. One card came with a broken tooth and no insurance to fix it. Another card dealt a broken water pipe that cost too much to fix, which leads to a utility shut-off. Another informed a parent that he or she had to leave work to tend to a sick child — and find child care for the rest of the work week.

Student Ryan Muery got the message that children are expensive and a major responsibility. “We just have one, and she’s 15. That’s good,” Muery said of the make-believe family. Plus, three of the four family members have an income, and the family has a car, more pluses, Muery said.

Ivy Tech life skills professor Peg Nelson said she wants the students to come away from the exercise with a heightened awareness of poverty. A simulation should make real the subject matter learned in the classroom, she said.

The exercise was part of Ivy Tech’s year-long focus on poverty, and tied in with the college’s first Campus Common Reading project. This year’s book, “Nickel and Dimed,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, detailed a more involved poverty simulation. Ehrenreich, a journalist, went undercover in the late 1990s as a low-wage worker to see if it’s possible to survive on $6 to $7 an hour. The short answer, according to her book, is no.

According to 2009 federal poverty guidelines, issued each year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an individual making $10,830 or less annually is living in poverty. That income figure for a family of two is $14,570, and for a family of three, $18,310.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 survey shows that in that year, 38,757,000 people, or 13.3 percent of the country’s population, lived below the poverty level — 778,000 of those people lived in Indiana.