The Local Life: Poor for an hour, eyes opened for good

Special to Lowcountry LifeSeptember 7, 2012 

I was poor for an hour last week, and I didn't like it. It was frustrating and frightening to face for a brief time the issues many people in Beaufort and Jasper counties face every day.

The simulation was part of a three-day workshop series on poverty presented by Together for Beaufort County's Community Services Organization. CSO, a consortium of local social services agencies including United Way of the Lowcountry, was formed in 2009 to help needy families and individuals who were falling through the cracks in the social service system.

"United Way views (the CSO) as a means of offering new and innovative opportunities to improve the quality of life for all Beaufort and Jasper county residents in the areas of basic needs, education, income and health," said Chrystie Turner, director of community impact investment for our local United Way, who discussed insights from the poverty simulation in an afternoon training session.

Our facilitator for the simulation was Anne Smith, director of Ministries United South Central Louisville, part of the Association of Community Ministries in the Louisville, Ky., metropolitan area.

Participants were assigned to non-traditional roles in families. I was a 14-year-old son worried about his suddenly absent father; my 15-year-old sister was into drugs at school; and our 32-year-old mother had been unemployed since my sister was born. Our father had deserted us. We had $10, three bus passes, a gun and some jewelry to pawn. Our monthly expenses totaled $925. We had no income. For four 15-minute "weeks," we had to pay our bills and survive.

A far-fetched scenario? Admittedly we were among the toughest cases in the room, but our situation would not be unique in real life. Every day, right here in our own community, people are choosing between buying food and paying the electric bill, taking a daily medication every other day to make it last longer and walking in all kinds of weather because transportation is a distant dream.

The census reveals that 10.5 percent of Beaufort County's population and 21.5 percent of Jasper County's were living below the official poverty level in 2010. Bear in mind that the poverty line is drawn at $22,500 annual income for a family of four. Try living on (or below) that.

When Smith blew the whistle to end the fourth and final "week" of our experience, my first thought was, "Thank goodness that's over!" Then came another thought: What if it wasn't over? What if it was the reality of my daily life?

"We think we know how our neighbors are living," Smith said, "but we have no idea."

She urged all of us to give whatever we can -- time, money, resources -- to help our neighbors get out of poverty. As we finished the exercise we could see her point, that poverty is an underlying cause of every social ill.

For example, by the fourth week, as the past-due notices rolled in and the pawn shop money and food pantry food ran out, I thought about stealing a gun from Big Dave's Pawnshop and holding up the bank. What stopped me? I saw my mom filling out welfare forms, and I knew if I didn't get away with my crime she would have another problem: a son in trouble with the law.

I reached that point in an hour -- and in a pretend situation. What if it had been real?

To help real people in real poverty, call United Way of the Lowcountry, 843-982-3040, or send a check to the annual campaign at P.O. Box 202, Beaufort, SC 29901.

Marge Barber is a retired journalist, community volunteer and former director of communications for United Way of the Lowcountry.

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