Oct. 7, 2007
Playing at being poor might seem offensively useless. But it can serve a purpose.
Living in poverty is not the free and easy ride that go-get-a-job critics who rail against taxpayer-funded public assistance programs would have us believe.
Living on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, transportation vouchers and child care subsidies is tough.
That point can be made real for people who live much more comfortable lives through exercises that help them better understand what it means to be poor.
United Way of Roanoke Valley board members and other community leaders last week participated in a poverty simulation.
They assumed the roles of low-income people -- a single, working father raising a 3-year-old; an arthritic elderly woman; a grandparent caring for a grandchild. Then they set out to find food, secure child care and health care, and make sure they had a place to rest their heads at night.
Pretending to be poor for a few hours might seem feckless when one has a warm bed and refrigerator full of food to go home to. But a simulation can at least give people who are in positions to effect change a taste of the difficulty of life on limited means.
Such exercises can be perceived as political stunts when practiced, for instance, by members of Congress.
Earlier this year, four House members attempted to highlight the failings of food stamp benefits by pledging to live for one week on $21 worth of food, what the average food-stamp recipient receives. It wasn't easy.
Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan didn't last the week. Jars of peanut butter and jelly he'd stuffed in carry-on luggage were confiscated at an airport, leaving him with nothing but a bag of cornmeal to carry him through the challenge's final days.
He was caught eating a pork chop in a hotel restaurant because he feared he'd be too weak to deliver a commencement speech.
"It just showed me that when you're living on food stamps, you're really one event away from disaster," Ryan told The Washington Post. "Some people are constantly living on that edge."
There is merit in pretending to walk that perilous edge, if it provides a truer sense of how the poor manage from day to day.
Never mind the appearance of showboating. What's important is that action follows.