Saturday, April 30, 2016

Poverty simulation workshops--color me skeptical

Our church, along with thousands of others, is recruiting people to "experience the power of a poverty simulation.  Come and step into the life of a struggling family: paying bills, seeking out community resources and navigating difficult family dynamics."  
The simulation is conducted in a large room with the “families” seated in groups in the center of the room. Around the perimeter are tables representing community resources and services for the families. These services include a bank, supermarket, community action agency, employer, utility company, pawnbroker, social service agency, faith-based agency, payday and title loan facility, mortgage and rent company, school, community health center, and child care center.

The experience lasts about three hours. It includes an introduction and briefing, the actual simulation exercise, and a debriefing period during which participants and volunteer staffers share their feelings, reflections, and observations, and make connections between what they have learned through the simulation about the challenges of living in poverty and their own or others’ real-life experiences of poverty and homelessness.
It is supposed to teach empathy.  Empathy isn't going to solve poverty; Americans have empathy coming out the wazoo. But we know three things that drastically reduce poverty, more than any government or church program: 1) finishing high school, 2) not having children until married, 3) waiting until 21 to become a parent. We also know that a job, any job, reduces poverty more than any government program like SNAP or Section 8 housing or Medicaid.  Two adults both working minimum wage jobs at today's current $7.50 federal minimum will have an income above the level to qualify for food stamps--$31,200--for a family of four.  For all the hoop-la about raising the minimum, barely 4% of hourly workers make minimum and that's just until they qualify to move up in the company. But it's empathy that is going to get those laws passed and get people laid off.

I Googled this topic (someone is making a ton of money putting on these workshops--there are thousands); can't find anything but praise for them.  Today's generations under 40 grew up without parents and grandparents who had experienced the Great Depression. Those people who didn't need a church workshop to tell them how to water down the gravy, or darn holes in socks, or sew dresses from feed sacks. Men who as boys were in the fields with their dads instead of chasing soccer balls, and women who as girls were snapping beans and canning instead of playing with cell phones.

What today's teen-agers and young adults really need is a 3 hour workshop on all the federal, state and local programs that transfer wealth from one group to another (there are 123 just for federal).  Sometimes it goes to top earners, sometimes to bottom, but it usually comes from those in the middle. Teach them about the waste and overlap in these programs, and how by accepting a $1 an hour raise a low income wage earner can see his health insurance go up by hundreds of dollars a year, and therefore is willing to keep the old job.  Teach them about "clawback" when the government can come and take back money from the children that you thought was helping out grandma. Then tell them about voting, and hand them a registration form in case they think that's someone else's job.

Teens need to know to start saving immediately from that first decent paycheck.   Atlantic has an article this month about the terrible savings habits of even very well paid professional people who wouldn't be able to come up with $400 if it was needed for an emergency. Young adults need to know, right now, that Social Security is not a fall back--having empathy for an elderly person living only on that will not change that child's life.  You can't eat empathy or pay a mortgage with it.  Empathy won't keep you from becoming part of the problem. Teach them that there is no wage gap for people willing to do the work or take risks; that black high school graduates are entering college at a higher rate than whites; that there are wonderful jobs going begging for lack of tech school graduates.

Teach them how to figure out how much drinking, smoking and eating out even one or two meals a week in a restaurant is going to take from their first salaries, money that could be invested or drawing interest. Oh, and please explain net and gross!

Oh, and by the way, there is a higher percentage of people in America living in poverty now than in the mid 1960s when President Johnson's War on Poverty was launched. Poverty fell faster in the 1950s than after the "War." Over $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs, three times the cost of all military wars in our history.

Tell 'em.  They need facts, not empathy, if you are really serious about reducing poverty.

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