There is a rightful global obsession with poverty.

Since 1987, the world has marked October 17 as “The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty”. It’s odd that in the Wikipedia article on the subject, the writers characterize the day as being “celebrated” as, despite progress, poverty is seemingly our never-ending story.

The UN Millennium Development Goals named eradicating poverty as Job #1 from 2000-2015. During that time, about 1 billion people were lifted from poverty and the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day, or in extreme poverty, was cut in half. The UN Sustainable Development Goals now aim to cut the number of people in that category to zero by 2030. In addition, the goals seek to reduce at least by half the proportion of people living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions.

So what does being poor actually look like? What does it feel like to live with less than you need? The world is enormous. Just how can you wrap your head around what poverty looks and feels like while living in the richest and among the most advanced countries in the history of humankind if this isn’t your everyday existence?

Lehigh’s Community Service Office (CSO) recently provided an opportunity to do exactly that on an early morning in mid-February. Bringing together local professionals who are members of Leadership Lehigh Valley, the CSO conducted a Poverty Simulation to give some basic insight on the challenges of living in difficult circumstances right in our Bethlehem backyard.

The various family units in the exercise represented those who were just above the official poverty line, not eligible for assistance and, in many instances, working adults. A note of fact that demonstrably highlights just how hard things are for some in our community is that 60% of our homeless South Bethlehem neighbors have a job.

The set-up was a “month in the life of…” families struggling economically.  In my role as the teacher for the local high school, I had about 10 students to work with. Our “weeks” were condensed into 15-minute segments and we had some interesting events at school.

  1. I requested and collected money ($3-$5) for field trips and class activities. Out of 20 requests, 2 students were able to bring the money as requested.
  1. I randomly handed out cards with directions to the students on them. One student received $50 from a local business for his art work. He high-fived his mother and said his family could eat that week!
  1. Another student brought a weapon to school and was sent to juvenile detention. His mother had the choice of using transportation vouchers and the little cash available to bail him out or buying food and paying bills. What would you do?

The debriefing was sobering to say the least. When asked what one word described their experience, the participants said, “Stressful.” From a 19 year-old single mom to an unemployed STEM college graduate, the fact was they didn’t have enough money or resources, and often couldn’t access assistance because they didn’t have transportation to reach the various offices scattered around the city. In some cases, nobody knew who to reach out to for help. Some families relied on the food pantry, the social service office or the church to ask for food and money to pay bills. Some used payday loans to stay afloat and saw interest charges eat their paycheck. Their tension was real.

The thread of survival is thin for those on the margin and a slight difference in circumstance is the line between breaking and holding. The challenge, at times, is that for those not living this reality, the thread is often invisible. When I asked one of my “students” what it was like to live in a family who was struggling, he said, “Exhausting”. Mind you, this exercise lasted ONE hour. It didn’t take long to understand how dark things can be for some of our neighbors.

I did find one bright spot, however. The student who I had sent to juvenile for the weapon reported to us that he was mad about the incident and was ready to make my life miserable upon his return to school. When he walked in I said, “Welcome back”. That moment, he noted, changed things for him. Why? He told us that right then, he thought that somebody just might care.

Perhaps this time, even if a simulation, the thread held.

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