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The Poverty Game

You think it's easy living on welfare? Maybe you'd like to try it.



When my unemployment checks from the steel mill ran out, I went to the employment office. Anything but welfare. The woman there wasn't very helpful at first--"Do you have any references?" I knew my old boss would give me one, but I didn't have anything written down. Finally she lined me up with a dry-cleaning job--not much money, and I wouldn't get paid for two weeks. But it was better than nothing.

The next day my wife went shopping. After the mill closed and our checks started bouncing, we did everything with cash. But she forgot to go to the bank first and used our last bus token to get to the store. We were in a fix--no money, no food, no way to get either. I tried the neighbors. They were out of tokens too. Somebody came by from the bank, asking about our overdue $300 mortgage payment. I told her that we could pay part of it and that I had a job (never mind that my take-home pay would barely cover the mortgage payment), and she went away. She didn't have any tokens either. Finally our 15-year-old son came home with some of his lawn-mowing money. We borrowed that, and my wife finally got to the store a second time and I got to work.

While we were gone, a police officer stopped in to see our son about a shoplifting case. He had been busted for shoplifting once before, but he'd been to a counselor, and I thought he'd stopped. (That was lawn-mowing money, wasn't it?) When the cop found our kids sitting around the house with no parents and no food, he hauled them off to foster care. The next day I went to see the social worker, but she wouldn't return our kids without proof that we had food. So I took the bus back home, got the last store receipt, and went back to the social worker. "Yes, but do you have a refrigerator?" she wanted to know.

Who did she think we were? Of course we had a refrigerator, and the cop must have seen it. But when I finally got home I found the house had been stripped while we were all gone. Now we didn't have a fridge--or a stove or a TV.

Good thing I'd bought plenty of tokens with my first paycheck. I was off to the pawnshop, where I managed to pick up an old refrigerator cheap. And back to show the social worker the receipt. She let our kids come home, and we ate together for the first time in days. We still had no stove, and I'd been ignoring the utility bills all month.

I'd had enough of being poor. The next week I sent my wife and daughter to the employment service. They got jobs, but then they ran out of bus tokens again and couldn't get to work. I was on my way home when I saw the cop who took our kids to foster care arresting my wife. He said she'd stolen a package of tokens. I almost punched him out. Then I calmed down and went home, where I sat on the floor and wondered what to do. My son came in and started talking about the "bad girls" he had met while he was in foster care. I was trying to think what to say to him when the bell rang.

My month as a downwardly mobile ex-steelworker lasted just one hour, in the basement of Resurrection Catholic Church just east of Wayne in the far northwest corner of Du Page County, and that was plenty. Along with five men and about 50 women--most of them members of the church who had been invited by its social concerns committee--I took part in a "welfare simulation" (a poverty simulation, really) in which each of us played the role of a poor person. For that hour we lived in a world where ATMs mean nothing and you had better get a receipt when you pay cash, because the person you're paying just might claim you didn't.

Think of it as a modern Dungeons and Dragons in which the poverty system is the dragon--a system that so discourages its clients that over time they can easily fall into permanent desperation and dependency. "It's constant pressure. You're always in the hole," says Eddye Owens, the energetic woman who ran the simulation and who was once a welfare recipient. "To live on welfare day after day you have to be a miracle worker." She offers the example of a family of four, who would get $414 in welfare a month. Out of that must come $350 or so for an unsubsidized apartment, leaving not quite enough for paper goods, soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, CTA tokens, and other essentials not covered by food stamps. "Eventually depression sets in, and you begin to feel like dirt. You don't invite people in, you fear getting hurt."

The idea of the simulation is to make middle-class people feel what it's like never to have enough money for necessities--and at the same time to be subject to the arbitrary rules and condescending coldness of a welfare bureaucracy. The simulation is simple--chairs, tables, and paper. In the center of the big room are clusters of chairs, each group labeled with a family name. People choose where to sit, and each family gets an envelope containing information on who's in the family, their income, and their assets, if any. It's up to each group to decide who will play which role. Tables around the edges of the room represent the significant institutions in the family's life: the employment office, welfare office, transportation-pass office, bank, currency exchange, grocery store, welfare rights organization, legal assistance, pawnshop, foster care, jail. The "poor families" in the center are usually almost all white; at least half of the "bureaucrats" outside are black, many of them current or former welfare recipients.

During the simulation's four 15-minute "weeks," the participants just try to feed themselves and their families and pay their bills. In my role as a former steelworker, I chose to start at the employment office; later on I was desperately offering my brown cards labeled "Refrigerator $100" and "Furniture $100" to neighbors in exchange for a few transportation passes. The bureaucrats at the tables helped when they had to, adding kindly comments such as, "It's about time some of you got jobs," and "You can't buy soap with food stamps."

Everyone is supposed to stay in character as much as possible until the "debriefing," when each family tells its story. Staying in character was not easy, and there was plenty of embarrassed laughter. But in time the simulated reality sneaks up on you. When Owens rang the final bell, I felt exhausted, as if I had been jogging around the church building for an hour instead of playacting in its basement.

The organization behind the simulation--the Chicago Area Project (CAP)--was founded 56 years ago by sociologist Clifford Shaw to combat juvenile delinquency during the Depression (Shaw assigned legendary organizer Saul Alinsky to the Back of the Yards neighborhood). The hybrid social-service and community-organizing agency has 33 affiliates in the city and suburbs, and an annual budget of $3.5 million. In the past ten years, according to executive director David Whittaker, it has added welfare-to-work "empowerment" activities to its other projects.

Among these activities is Women for Economic Security (WES), a group of current and former welfare recipients who lobby the General Assembly and the Department of Public Aid and who also get training and education. Two years ago WES, which is coordinated by Eddye Owens, brought together an interracial and interclass group of church women--Creating Bridges--to talk about welfare-to-work issues.

"It was a challenging thing," recalls Lillian Smith of Robbins, cochair of Creating Bridges, now a committee of WES. "Some of us were kind of afraid at first. We never had experienced black and white women sitting together talking about things." They found they had a lot in common, and they wanted to stay together and work on spreading their somewhat unexpected sense of community. The simulation seemed like a good tool for both purposes, as well as for combating what Whittaker calls the "infuriating notion that people are on welfare because it's a good way of life." Eighteen months ago CAP bought the Illinois franchise for the simulation from the Saint Louis group that created it, paying $500.

After the final bell rang, the other members of my "family" congratulated themselves on getting jobs--"We made it." They forgot that we'd only bought groceries twice all month, paid about one-quarter of our mortgage, and entirely ignored our gas, electric, and telephone bills. More realistic was the experience of the "Boling" family next door, whose head reported, "We had to resort to stealing refrigerators and TVs. [Ours!] I felt like a mouse in a cage." At the podium Eddye Owens checked the store records: "You didn't eat much." The Bolings replied, "Well, that wasn't our priority that week."

"Mrs. Studder," an 85-year-old widow, said, "I always felt I was behind. I should've considered living with other people, but I never thought of it." Jan Kay, a member of Creating Bridges and the League of Women Voters who had been "Legal Assistance" during the simulation, agreed that might have helped, but then she pointed out that zoning often discourages shared housing.

"Mr. Casper" said, "I felt really below the earth because everybody was so cold. This world has to change in some way." Owens responded with the story of a woman who waited in a public-aid office from 8 to 5 on a Monday and from 8 to 1 on Tuesday before she was told she was at the wrong office. "Mrs. Folly" outdid her by waiting three "weeks" at the welfare office during the simulation. "We started out trusting that the system would help us along. After a while I learned you can't trust anybody." Not even yourself. "Mrs. Guten," an AFDC mother of two, lost one child to foster care and bought no groceries at all during the first week. "But when I got a dental bill I made sure that was paid!" she said. "It was hard to think."

Owens chimed in after each account, driving the lessons home with real-life welfare stories. But she also had to deal with some classic stereotypes. "Mrs. Ober" recalled how the family of 12 children in which she grew up often did without. "We didn't have a flush toilet until I was 15 years old." Then she said, "What about these people with seven or eight kids--and the more kids they have, the more money they get?" Owens coolly replied that the average Cook County family on AFDC has just 2.1 children.

At the end Owens reminded us that no family had managed to buy enough food to last a month. And that "foster care had more kids in it than any other simulation we've given--and I didn't see too many people going over there to check on them!"

No simulation that condenses one month into one hour, and a good piece of Chicago into one room, can be realistic. As one of the Creating Bridges members who had been on welfare observed afterward, "You don't go to stealing in the first week or the first month. It takes longer than that. You try everything else first." The head of the "Kunes" family, an older man and west-side resident until 1965, was especially contentious. "I'm not sure whether I was more frustrated by the system or by the rules of the role-playing. He particularly objected to the "transportation pass" system. According to simulation rules, you can't approach any of the offices without first presenting them with a transportation pass. (If you said you'd walked, they wouldn't talk to you.) At one point early in the simulation most participants unwisely used up their transportation passes going to the store or looking for work--and then even those with ready cash couldn't get to the transportation-pass office to buy more. That struck "Kunes" as unreasonable, especially since he recalled that he had walked everywhere when he was young and poor in Chicago two or three generations ago. (Afterward he acknowledged that transportation would be a problem, but not the problem it sometimes became in the simulation.)

It's ironic to hear such a criticism in Du Page County, which, of all the built-up areas on the planet, must be one of the most hostile to pedestrians. But after a time it seemed that Owens might have wanted to plant a "Kunes" in the audience if he hadn't already been there: his dour skepticism seasoned the debriefing session and roused the other participants to reply. A former computer programmer and young mother of two said, "Right now in my own life I'm very comfortable. If we did not have a car, I could put the two kids in the stroller--if I were fortunate enough to have a double stroller--and push them a mile to the grocery store. But I could only take home a small bag. I'd have to do the same thing again the next day, and the next. And that's with the resources I have now. How could I possibly do any self-improvement with all my time taken up with these menial tasks? Where can these people find any time to get themselves off the system?"

Interviewed later, she said, "I'm very conservative. When I hear about raising our taxes for welfare benefits, I think they should all go get jobs. We get the paper and it's full of help-wanted ads. But in the simulation I spent all my time in a frantic search for just the basics. My ideas have been changed. We need a way to enable them to get a chance for a better life. How, I'm not sure."

If there ever was a time and place when it was relatively easy for different social classes and races to see and sympathize with each other, Chicagoland in 1990 is not it. So any tool that helps even a little is worth it. In the 18 months it's been available, the simulation has been offered eight times to a total of perhaps 550 people in the metropolitan area. Jan Kay calls it a "life-changing experience" for a few people. For many others it may be the thing that weakens the conventional attitude of "I made it on my own--so why don't they just try a little harder?"

But once the participants have been stirred to whatever degree, what are they supposed to do? "Write letters" seems to be the main answer. CAP staffers brought to the church piles of sample letters to state senators and representatives, urging them to raise public-aid cash grants by 15 percent (combined with last year's 7.5 percent raise, that would bring them back up to the buying power of 1985), to place those grants on the same cost-of-living basis as social security, and to improve the training, child-care, and transportation services that help people on welfare get and hold jobs. Owens is adamant that one letter with a Du Page return address supporting such reforms is worth "thousands" of the same coming from Chicago.

At Resurrection parish the simulation also had a more concrete result. The parish has had a food pantry since 1985 that serves about 150 families a month. According to parish social-concerns chair Marie Wiermanski, "Some of the women working at the pantry have often thought that people who came in were somehow trying to beat the system. When two families were living together, they felt that they should get only the groceries for one family. Now they don't do that anymore."

The simulation may also help reinforce WES's other projects--lobbying in Springfield, lobbying and working with the Department of Public Aid, and conducting "life-skills training" (funded by DPA) for ambitious welfare recipients in such subjects as businessletter writing, resume writing, and computer literacy. But ultimately the simulation is about feelings. It's a way to make an end run around Du Page County social Darwinism by giving people a view from the bottom and by letting them meet some of the real people who live there. And it can have a profound "echo effect," especially on people who are amateur or professional service providers.

"I think in the long run it will affect your whole worldview. But for me, it has definitely affected how I serve in a food pantry," says Creating Bridges cochair Phoebe Griswold of Chicago. "In the simulation I went to the food pantry, and the church woman there said, 'I can only give you so much, so there'll be enough for everyone, because there are more hungry people out there--don't you know that?' And I thought, 'I've said that--oh, Phoebe, shame on you!' It really is a heart expander."

Whether expanded hearts in metropolitan Chicago will lead to expanded hearts in Springfield or west-side public-aid offices remains to be seen. But in what other context could Mary Hartsfield, a homeless black woman who is a member of the Missionary Baptist church and of the WES policy team, have a chance to cut off Du Pagers' (simulated) utilities and then speak to them briefly and from the heart? "I am saved," she said with a grin, "and I did not want to do this. It was hard for me to shut your lights off because it's been done to me. I hope you'll use your vote to make the system work the way it should."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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