Organizer hopes poverty simulation builds resource network in southern Oklahoma
Fran is a 38-year-old woman trying to finish her bachelor’s degree. She knows how to work on her own car but is terrified that a major repair is just around the corner. She was recently laid off and relies on unemployment benefits and some money left over from her student loans to make ends meet.
She has four weeks to make some tough financial choices, including whether to pay for her $95 monthly health insurance premium or her $320 medication. On top of this, she still has utilities, groceries, a child to support and rent due for her apartment.
While technically a fictional scenario, Fran and her situation are based on that of a real-life person and was part of the Cost of Poverty Experience on Thursday. Dozens of volunteers and participants took part learning about the multiple barriers faced by those living in or near poverty during the two-hour simulation at the Downtown Farmer’s Market.
“We have these real-life stories every day that we work with,” said Chris Campbell, executive director of the 111 Project in Oklahoma City, who facilitated Thursday’s simulation. His organization hosted the simulation along with Oklahoma City-based Circle of Care, CASA of Southern Oklahoma and the Ardmore First United Methodist Church.
After a brief orientation, participants were given an orange folder with some background information about their character and various resources like cash or valuables. Tables surrounding the participants were staffed with volunteers and represented resources like a minimum wage job, gas station, grocery store and even homeless shelter.
Participants then had an hour to take care of their characters’ needs, with 15 minutes representing one week, and were challenged to improve their situation after one simulated month.
For Kevin White, his character was placed into the criminal justice system with stolen items near the end of the second week. As he sat waiting for his simulated court date, opportunities to address other needs in his life ticked away on the clock.
“This is an interesting simulation for sure. It definitely seems difficult to make ends meet with the scenario given, but it’s pretty realistic. High rent, high utilities, low amount of money seems par for the course,” White said.
The Cost of Poverty Experience is meant to highlight issues that often prevent individuals or families from improving their socioeconomic situation. Campbell said that the economic resources needed to lift people out of poverty must be considered along with the social resources.
“For a lot of families, I think what we forget is what they don’t need is more stuff. They need connections and relationships,” Campbell said. “A lot of folks that have come from our places, what they don’t want is another handout. What they want is a friend. They want somebody to advocate for them.”
Participants had to consider their finances and personal resources. Some characters did not have a vehicle and had to decide between public transport or walking. While public transport had an associated cost, walking would prevent participants from visiting resource tables for several minutes to represent the time and energy needed to travel on foot.
Some simulated families also had dolls representing small children. If volunteers noticed families with dolls were not providing for those simulated children, participants ran the risk of having the children removed and dealing with court intervention.
“For us particularly, with child welfare, one of the things we see is that 85% of the cases in Oklahoma in the child welfare space are related to some type of neglect and a lot of those neglect issues are due to socioeconomic challenges,” Campbell said.
Taylor Roring said her experience as a CASA advocate coordinator has shown that poverty regularly leads to southern Oklahoma children being removed from their families.
“Some families find themselves in a situation where their children are taken because they can’t provide a household with all of the things that children need,” Roring said.
What she witnessed during her volunteer role at a simulated gas station was an example of regular issues faced by families and the tough decisions that must be made on a daily basis.
“It’s interesting because some families come and they want to buy gas but they don’t have $40 for the week,” Roring said. “To see them try to figure out what to do – got to go next door to the pawn shop to sell something – that's been interesting.”
Campbell hopes the Thursday simulation was the first step in expanding his organization’s reach into Carter County. While the 111 Project focuses on creating a network of churches to connect foster children with safe families, he hopes their CarePortal collaboration of churches, agencies and community partners can get help to local families in need.
“Those needs are presented by local case workers, local organizations and community members can jump in and help today,” Campbell said.
The CarePortal network on Friday had five new open requests posted from three Oklahoma counties. One request from the Oklahoma Department of Public Services was for $952 to help a Canadian County business owner and single father pay his rent. The unidentified man is at risk of losing the home for him and his daughter next week.
Another request was for an Adair County foster family who recently had to spend $2,000 for an exterminator when one of the children brought bed bugs home after a visit. The request was for three twin mattresses after the family had to destroy the infected beds.
Unlike the scenarios in the Cost of Poverty Experience simulation, the people and cases listed on the CarePortal are real. Multiple requests are posted to the network’s website each day with responses left by members of the hundreds of participating churches. Almost 50 requests had been posted last week and many fulfilled.
While the CarePortal network currently does not have any connections in southern Oklahoma, Campbell said he hopes this week's Cost of Poverty Experience in Ardmore will help him recruit about 15 area churches. The network currently operates in 23 counties and has served more than 15,000 children in foster care.
“You guys have some great communities of people who care, but we need more help. We need more people,” he said of the Ardmore area.
Those interested in committing their church to the 111 Project can find more information, including a full list of CarePortal assistance requests, online at https://www.111project.org/.