Poverty simulation opens eyes in New Milford

NEW MILFORD — Picture days spent on a treadmill of trips to social agencies, struggling with finances and caring for children overwhelmed by poverty.

The simulation, “A Walk in Their Shoes: How to Survive One Month of Poverty,” opened the eyes of about 60 New Milford residents, including Mayor Pat Murphy, last week to a growing problem in the community.

New Milford Social Services held the poverty simulation on Friday at The Maxx. The program was led by facilitators Stephen Monroe Tomczak, associate professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Rebecca Wade-Randcourt, professor at Western Connecticut State University.

“The simulation is to sensitize us to the struggle that people of low income face day-to-day,” Tomczak said. “The situations are based on those occurring to typical low-income families.”

In New Milford, 18 percent of children live under 200 percent of the poverty level. A total of 1,478 resident are on SNAP, a nutrition assistance program, and 4,416 residents are on Husky health insurance. About 280 households are served monthly by the food bank and there were 831 New Milford households last winter that applied for Connecticut energy assistance, according to Peg Molina, Social Services director.

Participants in the poverty simulation were divided into groups of five comprised of at least one parent and children. Each family followed a script of personal circumstances, family income and possessions, expenses, Social Security cards and transportation passes that had to be used to go everywhere except school.

One family consisted of a working mother who brought home $1,324 monthly after taxes; a college-educated father who was laid off from work and his unemployment insurance ended; a 16-year-old daughter who was seven months pregnant and a sophomore in high school; and two sons, 8 and 10 years old. Their expenses totaled $1,995 a month. The father of the 16-year-old’s baby was in another family grouping.

Tables were set up along the perimeter of the room with signs designating: public school; child care center; supermarket; bank, general employer; pawn shop; utility company; mortgage and realty, pay day advance; and various social agencies.

A whistle was blown every 15 minutes, indicating the end of one week. Purchases had to be made, bills paid, work done, school attended and social services sought in each of the four 15-minute sessions.

Frustration, anger, desperation and exasperation were expressed among the participants as children were jailed, parents lost jobs, agencies closed before they could apply and unexpected expenses struck.

Rev. Jack Gilpin, of St. John’s Episcopal Church, said despite his work with the homeless and those in need in the community, his eyes were opened Friday to the reality of day-to-day life for a low-income family.

“The many interfaces you have to have with different agencies, constantly and the different parts of your life — your life becomes just that,” Gilpin said. “It’s all the many ways your forced to do busy work and how much of your life is dominated by agencies. Nobody likes to be on a treadmill. It’s a different kind of life.”

The poverty simulations in recent years have become a requirement for graduation in certain fields at SCSU and WCSU.

“We just started holding the simulation last year,” Wade-Randcourt said. “We hold it once a year for students in nursing, social work, education and health. It allows for 88 family participants. We have WCSU students who took the simulation here today in the roles of providers.”

The poverty simulation program was developed in the late 1970s in Missouri by ROWEL (Reform Organization of Welfare). When ROWEL ended, the Association of Community Action in Missouri picked up the program in 2002 and has improved it, Tomczak said.

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352