Saturday, September 11, 2010

The State of Poverty

It’s Saturday morning and it’s raining. A cold, miserable, steady, dripping rain. But I am warm and snug in my bed with a solid house around me and a watertight roof over my head. My bed has plenty of warm blankets, and when I do get out of bed, I have my choice of sweatshirts and other warm clothes for the day. And when things finally do get cold enough that I would risk freezing my pets or my plumbing, all I have to do is turn a dial and the furnace will come on and fill the whole house with heat.

During moments like this, one image floats in my mind’s eye: I am back in Cao Bang, Vietnam. It is winter. I am in my four-story solid cement house, settling into bed in my flannel sheets and under a down comforter. I am warm for the first time all day from a hot shower and as long as I get into bed quickly, I won’t notice the cold draft coming in the bathroom windows. The sound of steady dripping water on the tin roofs around me permeates even the closed bedroom windows. The mist has turned to a steady damp drizzle that will keep up all night.

Most of my neighbors are tucked away in their warm homes. But as I get into my own bed, I pause and look out the window, where I can just see the large dry goods market on the next block. It is closed and gated like a ghost town. A single light burns over the south entrance, and framed in the spotlight on the pavement is a bundle of light blankets on a large square of cardboard.

The market night watchman is wrapped worm-like in a dirty quilt, huddled on the four square feet of relatively dry ground under the overhang in front of the metal gate. He does not have keys to the market, so he cannot sleep inside under the solid roof. He is paid only to sit outside on the cement. He has no mattress, no tent, not even the rickety guard house that our guards in Madagascar had with a space for a cooking fire. He will sleep wrapped in a couple of old blankets in the rain all night, earning a few Vietnamese dong to support his family whose living quarters are just a few steps up from his open-air cement at the market.


On Thursday this week I had the opportunity to participate in my first Poverty Simulation. When you enter the simulation, you become a citizen of Anytown, State of Poverty, USA (there are no illegal immigrants in this particular town, a situation that might have to be updated for future simulation programs). You are given a new name, a new age, (often a new gender) and a new family.

I was made the four-year-old son with an asthmatic three-year-old brother, of a single mom. Our father was long gone; she received $292/month in government assistance. Our monthly rent on a three room flat with broken windows was $200. Mom had no education, no skills, no child care. With $92 she somehow had to pay a $350 gas and electric bill, get to the grocery store to feed us on $75 of food stamps per week, pay $60+/month in loans for our stove, past medical bills, and clothing. She had to avoid drug runners and keep her inquisitive and bored four-year-old from wandering off, dragging the three-year-old brother along to the casino and getting caught by child protective services while she was trying to apply for non-existent jobs.

With the cards stacked so against us, you might expect our “mother” to just give up and declare the game impossible. I certainly wouldn’t have blamed her if she did.

But she didn’t. She attacked a seemingly impossible problem with grit and determination. Even with adult preschoolers whining and crying and causing problems, she knocked on “doors” looking for baby-sitters, strategized her path through the various agencies and didn’t take no for an answer. Moreover, she did everything she could to take the moral high ground and to play by the rules even when the game constantly cheated her. But it was like trying to climb Mount Everest with a toothpick and dental floss.

Three “weeks” into the simulation we hadn’t eaten for two weeks because she couldn’t get to the store for food, we still hadn’t paid our gas or electric bill, and the one success we had was when she’d remembered to ask for a receipt for her rent payment and was able to prove that we’d paid at least to keep a leaky roof over our head. We celebrated that like we’d won the lottery.

Our break came late in the third week, and our fortune rode on the bad luck of others. A single mother with a teenage son were in dire straits of getting turned out of their home because she couldn’t get work due to a disability and he had had a brush with the law early in the game. They asked to move in with us. In exchange she would provide child care for us, my mother would be free to get work and her son also landed a work permit. Then, two Luck of the Draw cards came our way offering a job to my mother and found money to our new nanny. With the extra $60 and my mother’s chance at full time work, if we pawned a few extra household items like a stereo, it seemed we might actually be able to scrape into the next month.

We rejoiced. We rejoiced over the opportunity to work, pay on a few bills and have safe, stable child care with a woman who minutes ago had been a stranger with a delinquent son.

And then our one "month" simulation ended.


If the simulation had continued, what the would have discovered was my mother’s new income would have drastically cut her eligibility for food stamps, which she would have had to go renew at the welfare office. But the time it would have taken her to go to the office, sit and wait only to find out that her benefits were being cut might have cost her her job. Without food stamps she would have had to turn to the food pantry - only to discover that they handed out vouchers to the local grocery store - another trip across town and more time spent. And the food pantry was in danger of running out of resources. And we were running out of transportation credits to get mom to work, to the store, to the welfare office. We kids didn’t even leave the house at the end of the game.

Meanwhile, our nanny’s son finally did land a work permit, and assuming he actually found a legal job (which were scarce), she would discover that his earnings would reduce their food stamp and assistance as well. Blending our families might or might not have worked. What if he’d gotten in trouble again? True, the first time hadn’t been his fault and he’d been released, but now he was a known entity in the eyes of the law. Or what if my asthmatic brother had had a health crisis? Our landlord refuse to maintain our $200/month apartment - what if that became a serious problem? Or, what if we just plain didn’t get along?

The victories were so small...and the chances to loose them were so great.


The day was extremely frustrating for all involved. After being cheated by Quick Cash or losing time and transportation credits to closed banks and utility companies, some took to hiding in their homes and hoping nobody came to check on them. Others found bill collectors knocking on their doors and were driven to the streets during the day in hopes that if nobody was at home they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Older children and teenagers wandered aimlessly because school was and out staying at home meant dealing with bill collectors.

Jobs were scarce for all, and those that did get jobs were paid $5 an hour or less.

“Budget cuts” reduced agency staff sizes by half, leaving only one case worker, a half-time banker and half-time utilities manager for the 15 families in the simulation. School was out for the summer, but there was the real possibility of not having a school teacher in the fall.

Crime was rampant, and as three and four-year-olds, we were being exposed to drugs, swindlers and gambling (the Casino kept handing out free spin tokens), had been inside the jail after wandering off on our own, and were being left in the care of strangers. Our mother was under constant stress which hardly meant a healthy, beneficial relationship for our childhood development.


I think the one thing we all walked away with was a sense of relief that, while this was a reality for many people - one in ten in our county - it was not our reality. We returned to our cars with full tanks of gas to drive back to our good paying jobs and then home to our wind-tight walls and water-tight roofs. Yes, a roof may develop a leak or a car might run out of gas, but both would be dealt with. Our job might be stressful and annoying, but it was a job. Most of us lived in our own space without being forced to share living quarters with strangers and rely on them for child care. At night we had warm beds and soft pillows to settle into. We could splurge on ice cream on occasion.

Of all the images of poverty I encountered and experienced in my six years overseas, none stay with me quite like the market night watchman outside my door on so many cold, rainy nights, doing what he needed to do to scrape by. And I love rainy Saturday mornings in my warm bed even more for it.