Twenty-One and the Head of a Family

by Myra Saturen
April 04, 2013

At 21, the young man finds himself the head of a family--himself and three younger sisters, one of them a baby.  His father is in jail and his mother is absent.  He is solely responsible for his family'sPoverty Simulation survival.  The family, named "Smith," possesses two stoves, four transportation passes, a little cash, no car, and a pile of debt.  The young man is also struggling to stay in college. 

This scenario was one of many role-played by students at Northampton Community College (NCC) on April 4 as part of a poverty simulation.  The program originated in Missouri and was brought to the College by the Pocono Alliance, which seeks solutions to poverty in the region. 

As part of the simulation, students received assigned identities of invented "family members" living in poverty.  The purpose of the event was to demonstrate the hardships low-income families face on a daily basis and the barriers they encounter trying to become financially stable.  "It is a stressful situation for poor families and the agencies that help them," said Arthur Piancone, director of the Pocono Alliance. "Poor people live in the tyranny of the moment.  They have to solve today's problem today, and every day presents a new problem.  They are in reactive mode and cannot plan for the future." 

Students in "family groups" sat together on chairs, trying to figure out how they would stretch their scanty resources for a week, and then, later, for a month.  Surrounding them in the Community Room stood tables staffed by student role players, labeled Realville Police Department, Juvenile Hall, U Trust Us Bank, Food-A-Rama, Big Dave's Pawn Shop, General Employer, Quick Cash, Child Care Center, Social Service Department, Realville Public School, Community Action Agency, and Interfaith Services.  Time limits were given to accomplish tasks, and transportation tickets were necessary to get to the social service office and to day care. 

The "Smiths" try to fulfill their responsibilities under daunting circumstances.  They have to sell their two stoves.  The 21-year-old (played by a young woman) narrowly misses picking up the baby in day care because he has to stand in line at the pawnshop.  After buying some groceries, he has left to him only $18, an amount insufficient for other expenses.  His sisters are sitting on the floor doing homework because they have no chairs.  One of the sisters describes her school as being overcrowded and of poor educational quality. 

A long line forms at the employment office.  The Realville School is obviouLining up at the employment officesly bursting at the seams.  The "social service caseworker" fills out forms for applicants coming to her desk in rapid succession.  Some of the questions she must ask them are highly personal. 

As part of the program, Piancone alerted students to the roles community agencies and interfaith organizations play in helping people in need.  Often, he said, people do not avail themselves of these agencies because they do not know about them. 

The poverty simulation drew a Community Room-full of students and made personal the complexities and frustrations of living without. 


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