VANDALIA – Albert Aber, age 42, a computer programmer with a college education, has been employed at the same company for 20 years. He was laid off four months ago and has been unable to find work. He was receiving unemployment compensation of $350/week, but this has run out.
Aber has a wife, Ann, who is 39, with some college education and is employed as a receptionist at General Hospital. They have a 16-year-old daughter, who is in good health and a motivated high school sophomore looking forward to going to college, but is pregnant and due in two months. The couple also has two young sons, ages 10 and 8. The older son babysits the younger sibling when his parents are out trying to make ends meet.
The Abers live in a middle-class suburb in a three-bedroom home, and are paying a mortgage. The house needs several repairs and insulation to help reduce monthly utilities and make it comfortable. They have student loans, two used vehicles – one is unreliable but paid for, and they are paying off a loan on the other. They have been using their credit cards as a means of survival while the father continues to look for employment. Now the cards have reached their maximum limit.
The mother makes $9/hour and works 40 hours/week for a total of $1,440/month ($1,324 after taxes). Their monthly bills total $1,435, the weekly grocery bill is $110 and they have $200 in savings.
The family went to the Division of Family Services for help.
"You need to fill out this form," the receptionist said. But the whistle blew before Aber had finished filling out the form, indicating the end of the week. They had to go home empty handed.
Around him, some 20 other people attending Vandalia's first "Poverty Simulation" shuffled to their chair circles. The role-playing event, hosted by the Central Missouri Community Action (CMCA) agency, was held Wednesday night in the Van-Far High School gymnasium. It was designed to help people better understand the frustrations of the poor.
The mother has health insurance through her work, but it is too expensive to cover her husband and children. The first week the family went to the welfare office for food stamps, but they did not get them until one week later. Meanwhile, they headed to CMCA for assistance with their electric bill, but never made it, because the whistle blew again. Their electricity was disconnected and soon after, they were evicted.
Adding even more to their troubles, they were forced to turn to an overcrowded homeless shelter, which had people sitting outside on the ground, waiting for a chance to get inside. During the third week of the simulation, they learned that the Realville Public School will be closed for holiday.
Aber tried going out to get more food, but didn't have travel passes. He tried to buy more travel passes but didn't have any cash. Everyone was getting frustrated, stressing about their financial dilemma. The daughter tried to get a job to help ease the burden and got hired. But, the stress was overwhelming for the young mother-to-be. The family was homeless, and Dad and Mom felt helpless.
Page 2 of 2 - "We were angry. Here, we have worked our lives trying to build a stable environment for our family, and the economy was working against us," said Amber Snyder, who works for the Early Head Start CMCA program that serves Audrain County. She played the father in the simulation.
On the other side of the room, a woman who had been turned away from every service agency, found herself at the pawn shop. Another woman who had been laid off from her job, turned to crime to try and stabilize her situation.
"These are real stories about families in Missouri. None of them have been made up," CMCA Community Service Director Angela Hirsch told the participants. Hirsch and CMCA consultant Tad Dobyns, Community Organizer for CMCA organized the Vandalia event with the intention to educate area social service workers, educators, and the community on how devastating living in poverty can be.
"We hope those participating gained a better understanding of the complex nature of poverty and why we are at the level we are, particularly here in this country," Dobyns said. "The biggest thing we hope they take out of this is sensitivity. This could very well be their neighbor, their family, or people they don't even know. Poverty affects us all."
Van-Far kindergarten teacher Angie Morris said the simulation was an eye-opener.
"As a teacher, I have a better understanding of what some of my students and their families are going through," Morris said. She hadn't realized before how disconnected the families can become, and how that can affect the young students she teaches. Before this simulation, I never worried about that. In the simulation, Morris played the role of the youngest son. "I was worried and didn't know what had to be done. As a kid, I felt like I was being drug around.
"Now, I have a better understanding of what my students (in those situations) feel like," Morris said.
Dobyns said CMCA hopes to hold more simulations in the future, if the budget allows. The agency's goal is to hold at least one for each service area. The Mexico CMCA branch serves both Audrain and Callaway counties.
Before the simulation ended, a question and answer session was held. Most of the groups reported hard times, stress and total losses. However, there were a few that were able to utilize their community's resources (such as CMCA, DFS, area churches, schools and social and civic organizations) to survive and overcome their hardships.
For more information about poverty simulations and how you, your church or organization can help, call Dobyns at (573) 582-7864 (Mexico office) or (573) 642-3316 (Fulton office). CMCA is willing to do community demonstrations as time and finances allow. Those attending the simulation Wednesday night were given lists of area resources and services.