Taking A Look At Poverty In Alabama

Sep 19, 2016

When people are encouraged to understand others, they’re often told to walk a mile in their shoes. Alabamians have the chance to do just that at poverty simulations put on by the group Alabama Possible. APR Student Reporter Allison Mollenkamp attended a simulation hosted by the United Way of Alabama. She takes this look back… 

Realville Poverty Simulation
Credit Alex Aubuchon

Volunteers are at a Alabama Possible poverty simulation. The group gathers in a gymnasium. There’s nothing on the walls--just groups of chairs in the middle of the room. Each cluster represents a family in the fictional town of Realville.

When everyone finds their seats, the rules are set out. So are the necessities of life in today’s simulation. 

Kristina Scott, Executive Director of Alabama Possible explaining the rules of the simulation.
Credit Alex Aubuchon

First are transportation passes. They represent the time and money it takes to get places. No passes mean you can’t go anywhere. The kids in Realville have to go to school. The moms and dads have to go to work. That is -- if they have a job. This is a poverty simulation, so nothing is guaranteed. Each family was given a packet of information about their finances and their roles.

That’s when I meet the Yarrow family. The family is made up of four women. Katherine Gould is assigned to be the grandfather. The grandmother, Ottia Birl, is the breadwinner. The two children are played by Angela Martin and Monica Barton. Grandfather Katherine is disabled. So, even though Ottia works, times are tough. Even going to the Pawn Shop to make ends meet doesn’t seem to work.

Pawn Shop simulation
Credit Alex Aubuchon

“Well Eunice I’ll be real honest. I get stuck with cameras now because nobody buys cameras anymore. They use their phones.” The pawn shop in today’s simulation is rigged against those living in poverty.

“We can’t foodbank our way out of poverty, but also how it’s really important to meet people’s immediate needs.” Kristina Scott is the Executive Director of Alabama Possible. She came to Alabama after working as a lawyer in Los Angeles. “My background in the law really gives me an understanding of systems so that we can build relationships and people can break down barriers to prosperity.”

The group Alabama Possible works to create long term change for families. The United Way is more worried about the here and now. Jackie Wuska is President and CEO of the United Way of West Alabama. She says her group has a special reason to want to host this simulation.

“Our two-one-one help line is ringing with calls for fans and assistance for utility bills. Also school supplies. In a few months it will be winter coats. Immediate needs were becoming a big concern for the Yarrows. 

Credit Alex Aubuchon

“Some of the smartest people in our group looked at their budget, realized it wouldn’t work, and decided ‘We’re gonna have to commit crime to make this situation work.’”

Ms. Wuska participated in the simulation through Leadership Alabama 2 years ago. She says one of the biggest surprises to her was what led people to crime.

“While I was off trying to keep utility bill, those were the exact people that were stealing from me.”

“I think it was just sitting there. Cause you know, we’re sitting at home together, as siblings, watching all of this chaos around us. People trying to get resources, other children stealing, our parents coming back saying they’ve been robbed.”

One of the smartest people in the Yarrow family is their nine year old, played by Angela Martin. She moved to Tuscaloosa recently to work for Hunton Refining—that’s Angela in real life—not the nine year old she plays today. She does what she can to help her grandparents with figuring out how to pay the bills and where to find help. But, there’s a feeling of helplessness that leads her to see another way out. She’s considering crime.

“And so we felt hopeless. And so it’s like ‘What can I do to not just sit here and watch this happening around me?’”

“I think there are people that maybe towards the beginning of the simulation were trying to beat the game. The decks are stacked against them and you can’t necessarily beat this quote-unquote game.”

That’s Lindsay Turner, executive director of the Druid City Garden Project. She worked as a teacher in the school in the simulation.

Ms. Scott says in real life there’s only one way to beat the game: college. “How can we advocate so we can build systems where college is expected, where it is affordable, and where it is really possible for everybody that is graduating from high school.”

Alabama Possible helps students prepare their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA for short. They also work with high school counselors to encourage students to attend college. Poverty simulations like this one are meant to create an emotional response and lead people who can to help programs like Alabama Possible. Participants can also find ways to make life easier for those living in poverty.

“We did the simulation with teachers from all over Morgan County and one of the things that they realized was that these low-income parents don’t have enough money to send to school for their children to go on a field trip. So they were going to arrange with their PTA to have a fund so that low-income children could participate in field trips.”

Ms. Scott’s example of a success story isn’t the only one for the simulation. The Yarrow family had a happy ending too.

“We had money left at the end.”

“That’s what surprised me too.”