CONWAY -- They arrived wearing stylish shoes, coats, ties and jackets. College professors, civic leaders and government employees were among them.
Before they left, an 85-year-old man was homeless, two other people were evicted from their homes, others became pawnshop and payday-loan regulars, and a young father sold drugs to feed his baby.
The people were real; their plights and sometimes their ages were fictitious but all too realistic. These people and the realities of poverty came together last week at the University of Central Arkansas during a "poverty simulation."
"The goal of the simulation is to help participants understand the challenges that individuals in poverty face on a day-to-day basis," said Amy Whitehead, director of UCA's Center for Community and Economic Development. "This understanding will hopefully allow the participants and their organizations to more effectively serve low- to moderate-income populations."
The simulation involved assigning about 55 participants from UCA and central Arkansas to role play members of various families. Each person was assigned a scenario to deal with during a simulated four-week period compressed into 15-minute week segments.
Some had jobs. Others were looking for work. Some were elderly. Others were scared children or rebellious kids who landed in jail. Some found themselves doing things they said they'd never have done in better circumstances.
Around the large UCA room, tables were set up where more than 20 volunteers staffed such places as U-Trust-Us National Bank, Food-a-Rama Super Center, Big Dave's Pawn Shop, Quik Cash, a homeless shelter, Friendly Utility Co., Sweany Mortgage and Realty, a Community Action Agency, the public school, social services and the county jail. That last place is where the drug-dealing dad ended up after he unsuccessfully tried legitimate methods to improve his family's finances.
The Arkansas Department of Higher Education offers the simulation program at no charge to any educational institution that provides technical education.
"We always encourage the institution to include community leaders so that the issues of poverty are addressed on a larger scale than just the campus," said Monieca West, the department's federal program manager.
"This is not a game," West told the participants. People die and confront poverty "every day of their lives."
"Given that such a large percentage of Arkansas college students are economically disadvantaged, it is important that faculty and staff better understand the challenges that their students face," West said in an email later.
At the start of the session, a line quickly formed at the pawnshop.
"Well, how much can I get for my TV?" one woman asked.
"We can give you $50," the dealer replied.
"It's really worth about $100," the woman replied. But the dealer pointed to the TV's outdated antenna.
The pawnshop offered to sell a gun -- actually a child's yellow water pistol -- to one woman. But someone else eventually bought it or perhaps stole it, tried to rob the bank and went to jail.
Along the way, participants learned some harsh lessons. They had to have transportation passes at $1 per person for every day they went anywhere, whether it was the local hospital to apply for a job or the payday loan company to borrow money -- at high interest rates -- or to buy food or to pay rent.
If they didn't have passes for themselves and any children or other people with them, they had to rush back home for them, barter for them or do what one person did at some point during the session -- steal someone else's passes. The passes represented the fuel, oil and liability insurance needed to drive a car or the price of using public transportation.
The passes also offered a chance for the poor to be cheated at the hands of a couple of greedy merchants such as the payday loan clerks who sometimes shortchanged their rushed customers who didn't always take the time to check their purchased items.
The clerks also knew how to take advantage of poverty: To avoid buying more transportation passes, just get that check cashed here instead of the bank across town, one of the clerks told a woman. She took him up on the offer and quickly cashed her two checks totaling roughly $600, but for a $60 fee.
"It's very easy to take advantage of people in poverty," West said.
Job hunts moved slowly. At the local hospital, the town's main employer, one woman was handed an application and told, "Take this and bring it back next week."
"Next week?" the woman said, taken aback.
"We can only hire one person a week," said the bank representative, who was played by Shelley Mehl, associate vice president of outreach and community engagement at UCA.
By the time the simulation ended, the hospital had hired three people and fired one for being late. Tardiness was a recurring problem for employees who didn't have transportation passes readily at hand.
"Our family was just trying to live in the day" and couldn't get ahead long enough to try to improve their overall lives, one person told the participants as the event neared an end. There was a new challenge each day, the participant said.
It's hard to understand why people make the choices they do "until we are in their shoes," West said.
Whitehead said UCA plans to offer the simulation again in February, with UCA students as participants.
State Desk on 12/10/2017
Print Headline: 55 people walk in poor people's shoes; UCA holds to illustrate obstacles low-income folks face