Unemployment’s Run Out. Now What?

Defeat Poverty DC Hosts Simulation to Demonstrate Difficulties Many DCers Face

At Poverty Simulation, Rev. Curry (on right), aka Albert Aber, meets his new family.

Rev. Dr. Kendrick Curry, pastor of the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, received an assignment many people would consider to be Mission Impossible: “You have been using your credit cards as a means of survival while the father continues to look for employment, but now the credit cards have reached their maximum limit. Mother has health insurance through her work but it is too expensive to cover her husband and her children. They have no insurance at this time.”

Rev. Curry’s new identity: computer programmer Albert Aber, married, with three children, but laid off four months ago from his 20-year job and now facing the loss of his unemployment benefits. Monthly expenses for the Abers total over $1,500. His wife earns $1,324 monthly after taxes, leaving a $221 shortfall. Fortunately, Rev. Curry’s impoverished state lasted only two hours. Many DCers are not so lucky.

Rev. Curry was participating in the “Poverty Simulation” an exercise co-sponsored on October 13 by Capital Cause, Serve Your City, the Steinbruck Center for Urban Studies and Defeat Poverty DC (DPDC). The last of these organizations is an advocacy group raising awareness of poverty in DC and developing support among city leaders for policies to alleviate it.

Poverty in DC

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute in a September 12, 2012, policy brief cautioned that poverty is increasing in DC. “One in five DC residents – approximately 123,000 – live in poverty according to U.S. Census Bureau data,” the report states.

“There are many myths about poverty,” says Joe Weedon, executive director of DPDC. “People do not want to work. It’s their fault that they are in poverty.” Weedon argues that the reasons for poverty are more complicated. The simulation helps to illuminate the difficulties people experience.

Feeling the Pain

“People think that is easy to apply and get benefits to keep your family afloat,” explains Weedon. It’s not. In the simulation, designed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, people play roles ranging from official positions, such as a mortgage company officer, to being members of a family whose father lost his job. Covering the period of a month, each week in the simulation lasts fifteen minutes.

Bianca Vazquez, a Lutheran Volunteer Corps member who serves as program coordinator at the Steinbruck Center, helped to arrange the simulation at N Street Village. She wrote in an email that the simulation “exposes the incredible wealth of knowledge” a person in poverty needs just to navigate the system. She reels off questions that are important to know to in order to receive assistance. “What churches have food pantries on what days? What agency will help you get a photo ID or your birth certificate? What nonprofits can assist with rent, transportation passes? What to I do if I can’t read the forms that the DC Housing Authority gives me?”

Meet the Abers

Rev. Curry, a board member of DPDC, arrives at N Street Village that Saturday, discovering he will portray Albert Aber. Rev. Curry is introduced to his family and, upon starting the simulation, he quickly takes command, realizing that everything presents a cost in time and money. Just getting to places requires transportation passes.

Albert tells his wife, daughter and two sons: “We need help with the mortgage.” But attention also has to be paid to needs of food and transportation. “I’ll go to make a partial payment [on the utility bill]. If we can do that we will be able to move forward,” he tells his family.

At the utility office, Albert decides to have his family forego having a phone to concentrate on paying bills for electricity and gas. Then it’s to the Department for Social Services (DSS) to apply for an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. Later Albert waits in line at a bank, when it closes.

On and on it goes, endless visits to DSS and having to refill their forms. Stops at the bank, a mortgage company, Community Health Services and the Community Action Agency, each with its own demands for identification and verification of unemployed status that must be met before closing time. 

A siren screams. Weedon announces that a family has been “picked up” for not paying their utility bill.

Back to his normal life, Rev. Curry notes that he could rely upon his knowledge of “the system” to help prioritize dealing with his simulated family’s problems. “We needed to preserve shelter so we could be intact as a family,” he explains. But he’s left wondering, “Why do I have to fill out an application four times to get an EBT card?”

Albert and his wife are college educated. Many in DC lack even basic literacy skills. Some participants received a sheet from the Community Health Services in Greek just to see how difficult it can be to for people unable to read complicated medical instructions.

DPDC will stage more simulations in the coming months. Rev. Curry wants to see city leaders, including elected officials, participating so they will better understand the problems many DCers are facing. “For those without the skills of experience to navigate the system, it can be frustrating. We started to feel that frustration too even though we were participating in a simulation.”

Stephen Lilienthal is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC. Defeat Poverty DC’s webpage is located at http://defeatpovertydc.org.

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