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University students get hands-on lesson on poverty

By Julie Wurth/The News-Gazette/URBANA '” Nearly 1.7 million Illinoisans, or 13.3 percent of the state's population, live in poverty.

In Champaign County, the number is far higher: 21.3 percent. Next door, in Vermilion County, nearly a quarter of the residents are considered poor, living on $24,000 or less for a family of four.

Those stark numbers, released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau, can seem remote to the average University of Illinois student from a comfortable background.

Even those interested in a "helping' profession don't have a good grasp of what it means to be poor, or how to help, said Tara Earls Larrison, visiting associate professor of social work.

Maybe some of them do now.

About 70 social work students took part in a poverty simulation at the UI last week that left most of them frustrated, stressed out and a lot more understanding about the real-life experiences of the poor.

"I know it's hard, but I never knew it was this hard,' UI student Fatima Diabate said after the 90-minute session.

Put together by the United Way of Champaign County, the poverty simulation has been used with churches and community groups, but this was the first time it has been part of a university class.

Larrison said she tries to incorporate real-world learning activities in her Social Work 200 course, so when one of her teaching assistants heard about the poverty simulation, she jumped on it.

The exercise can help students understand the disparities between rich and poor, and how that plays out in day-to-day life, Larrison said.

"Most of the time, we have ideas of what poverty would be like. But we don't really register the experience of their situations,' Larrison said. "Even if they don't all come from privileged backgrounds, they are privileged to be college students.'

The simulation takes participants through a "month' of living in poverty. They have to figure out how to get to work or find a job, buy food and pay bills on their meager income, fend off criminals, fight through red tape and somehow get their children to school.

Staff from the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education, Champaign schools, Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, Developmental Services Center, Mahomet Youth Club and other agencies help with the exercise, playing roles as a landlord, banker, grocer or pawn shop owner, or staffing a food pantry, health clinic, utility, public aid office, quick cash store or employment office.

Transportation, and long lines, proved to be major challenges for the students.

Divorced mom Opal Olson (UI sophomore Annie Bruno) spent the bulk of her time trying to cash her paycheck and buy transportation passes so she could get to work, get her kids to school and get to the store to buy food. She was hardly ever home, leaving 12-year-old Olivia (freshman Celia Zanayed) in charge of 9-year-old Oscar (senior Lindsay McCleery), while 17-year-old Otto (sophomore Gabby Sorich) went off to find a job and support the family.

In the simulation, Opal is a divorced, 36-year-old high school graduate who works nights at a hospital 20 hours a week. She takes home $568 a month, plus $126 from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and $800 in food stamps. She lost $100-a-month child support when her ex-husband was laid off.

During the first week of the simulation, Opal spent the entire time waiting in line to cash her check but never made it to the front. Like most families in the exercise, she forgot to buy food. And like most of the other children, her kids never made it to school.

"The reality is, that is what happens,' Vernessa Gipson, director of family services at the regional office, said later.

The second week went a little better. Otto (played by Sorich) found a job and brought home a $374 check but had no transportation to go cash it. Mom was off standing in another line, although she eventually managed to buy food and transportation passes.

Just when things were looking up, they learned their refrigerator had broken, spoiling the food inside.

"It's stressful,' Sorich said later. "I've never experienced something like this. It's humbling. It's a lot of responsibility.'

Lurking in the shadows was Associate Dean Barry Ackerson, the resident "illegal activities person.'

"When things get a little tight, come see me,' he offered.

But Bruno's Opal replied, "No, thank you, sir.'

Next-door neighbor Daniel Kunath was more willing. He agreed to pawn a ring and stereo that Ackerson had stolen, gaining $60 for his efforts. "Our family really needs the money,' Kunath explained.

A truant officer made the rounds, hustling kids off to school and promising to have a talk with their parents later. Trudy Teacher (graduate student Samantha Hack-Ritzo) told the students their school had little money for supplies and asked them to bring in donations for toilet paper, pens and paper.

"It's very hectic. There's too many students for the teachers. In that kind of school system, this would be a very realistic experience,' she said.

By the third week, some families still hadn't bought food. Bruno's Opal left her kids at home again to get more supplies.

Then a water main broke at the school, and it closed for the week. Parents had to scramble to find child care or miss work.

"I sent the kids home from school, and a couple of them went straight to the illegal activities dealer,' said Hack-Ritzo, who played the teacher.

Meanwhile, utility companies handed out notices of overdue bills, and landlord I.M. Merciless walked around informing families they were behind in their rent.

"We got evicted because we didn't pay our bill,' complained Diabate, who played Albert Aber, a husband and father of two who had lost his $4,000-a-month job. "We didn't have any money because I couldn't find a job.'

She tried to get assistance at the public aid office, but filled out the forms incorrectly. Her house was robbed twice, and it took three trips to the employment office to find a job. Her daughter stole a bus pass at school and was expelled, and she couldn't sell her car "since no one would take it.'

"I just had a horrible day today. Everything that could go wrong happened to me,' Diabate said.

In the end, she got help from legal authorities, who told her she couldn't be evicted without notice. She and her family moved back into their home.

Overall, the students "kept their heads in the game' but made a few key mistakes, said the United Way's Sue Grey, who led the exercise.

Almost all of them made it to the quick-cash store the first week, but few sought help from the public aid office. It was seen as "a vendor of last resort,' even though the process of applying for assistance can take a couple of weeks, said Gipson, who staffed that office.

"You've got to be careful about stereotyping people and places,' she told the students.

Few, if any, counted their money at the check-cashing store or asked for a receipt when paying their rent. United Way volunteer Bill Lindemann, who portrayed the landlord, said he collected an extra $50 from almost everyone.

Added Ackerson: "I'm amazed how quickly some of you turned to a life of crime.'

The students were frustrated when offices closed with people still waiting in line and by the unforeseen problems, Grey said.

"It's very hard to navigate the system,' Larrison said.

Bruno found the exercise "confusing and complicated.'

"It taught me to prioritize what to get done first,' she said afterward. "I got really impatient and really frustrated really fast.'

Her "children' said they felt isolated and helpless.

"It wasn't our day today,' Bruno said before heading off to her next class.

Of course, in real life, tomorrow would be no different.

"For 35,000 people in Champaign County,' Grey told them, "poverty is not a game.'

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.