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Students, faculty experience daily struggles for low-income families

Published March 21, 2019

Pablo Perez is a young man who suddenly finds himself the man of the house. His parents have passed and he needs to provide for his twin 13-year-old brothers and 3-year-old sister.

They need food, transportation to school, day care, clothes and money for the monthly rent check. He tries as many of the available social services he can find, and is able to pick up free essentials, vouchers for food and housing but at times, it’s not enough. He considers adopting out the 3-year-old to lighten his load.

Stella Smith is an 85-year-old retiree who was evicted from her apartment and now lives on the streets of Long Beach. Desperate to get out of her situation, she visits many of the service provider in the city and finds free clothing and food, transportation vouchers and financial help for her arthritis medicine. Having managed her money carefully and putting aside that she was robbed, Stella is able to land an apartment.

Pablo and Stella are not real, but these kinds of scenarios resemble true life for the many people who find themselves among the 19 percent of Long Beachers who live in poverty. The reality of poverty became all too real for many students and faculty who took part in role playing Wednesday as part of the Poverty Simulation, sponsored by the College of Health and Human Sciences.

The simulation is a learning tool created as a way to help people understand and broaden the awareness of poverty. During the exercise, participants emerged into lives of low-income families over the course of four 15-minute weeks.

Grant Wilson, a third-year Long Beach State political science major, played the role of Pablo. He said he never realized how difficult it can be for lower-inocme families to balance a family, bills and responsibilities.

“Honestly, I never realized … the amount of stress,” Wilson said. “In the simulation, I was really stressed. I never realized that you can’t be a proper family because your kids are going to school or helping out with other kids, you’re busy working and doing this and that. So, it’s not a happy experience at the end of the day.”

The factitious Chen family lost their house because they failed to pay their mortgage and lived on the street for one “week” before getting their house back. Other students lost their EBT cards, had to rush home from the bank because their student got expelled, or couldn’t make it to social services before 5 p.m.

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Nancy Matthews, a lecturer in Recreation and Leisure Studies, played the part of Stella. She said that there’s a lot to learn from participating in this type of simulation.

“(I saw) how resilient many of our students are, which tells me that some of these students are experiencing some of these things,” Matthews said. “It reminded me completely of my childhood when I was just as concerned about paying the mortgage at age 12 as my parents were, so yeah, there were some painful feelings there. But as I looked around at this experience, our students knew how to navigate.”

Cathleen Deckers, an assistant professor in Nursing, was the facilitator, while members of the CHHS IPE team organized the simulation event. Those who volunteered were Adam Butz (Public Administration), Nancy-Meyer-Adams (Social Work), Alaine O’Campo (Speech/Language Pathology), Debi Windle (Nursing), Gail Frank (Nutrition) and Natalie Cheffer (Nursing).

Deckers called the experience “eye-opening” for the participants.

“This simulates how hard poverty is because we all have biases,” she said. “We think that ‘If they all worked harder, they could rise up.’ But it’s not that easy.”

California has a statewide poverty rate of 16.4 percent compared with the national average of 12.7 percent.

Each “family” was given unique hardships, such as language barriers, disabilities or the loss of parents, that they needed to overcome to survive. Others lost their money, was cited by the police for leaving their child home alone or had their car stolen.

“Staying alive is easier said than done,” Deckers told the group afterward.