Or… the frustrations of being “Cathy-32”
When my boss handed me her ticket to a Cost of Poverty Experience (C.O.P.E.) seminar (see video below), I was intrigued. C.O.P.E. is a simulation of one month in the life of poverty. It provides a glimpse into the obstacles that are faced, the decisions that are made, and the consequences that impact low-income individuals and families every day.
The object? To sensitize participants to the realities faced by low-income people. It sounded somewhat … fun – in a twisted way. I liked simulations. And judging from my embarrassing collection of Tycoon and Sims games, I clearly love playing pretend.
However, it was not a game. How could it be?
It was held in one of the biggest churches I had seen. That morning I thought, “What do you wear when you’re about to spend your day pretending to be poor?” I didn’t want to look so lavish that it made a mockery of the situation so I wore work attire with a hint of “Sunday’s best”, sparing the flashy jewelry.
More than 50 people including myself were herded into the church’s uncharacteristically small chapel, taking in our surroundings. Clusters of chairs of varying sizes populated the middle, and tables were strewn about the surrounding walls. I was placed in a group of three, with a gentleman and woman, and we sat in an uncomfortably close circle of chairs facing each other. I caught view of the baby doll sitting on my teammate’s chair, and that’s when I realized this wasn’t just budget sheets and bill paying. Oh no – baby dolls were involved. This was to be a very sobering game of “house”.
My teammates were much older than I. We discussed our professions and our anxieties of what was to come. A portrait of a family was taped to the back of my chair and our “family packets” lay beneath. Each cluster of chairs was deemed a “family”. Along the walls there was were tables meant to portray a gas station, a welfare office, a pawnshop, a school, a bank, an employer and other community resources. There was play money, pretend offices, school supplies… all to make it more real. The pawnbroker even had Dollar Store gold chains adorning her neck.
Each family packet was co-designed by real low-income individuals who shared their story. We were about to jump head first into the simplified lives of real people. The families varied. Some large, some individuals, some gay and lesbian, some married, single, mothers, teens, some well off and most weren’t. Some had health, mental or criminal issues, some attended school or work and sometimes both.
Inside our packet was $50 in play money, a description of our family, cards representing our possessions (I had an Xbox!), a car title, and other items. Our family situation?
“Married Couple with two children; Father is Ex-Offender”
There were three nametags: one for the father, one for the mother, and one for the oldest daughter. To save from the embarrassment of playing married life with a middle-aged man (or woman), I quickly swiped the daughter tag, stuck it on my shirt and became Cathy-32, a ten-year-old “normal” child. My teammates became my parents – my ex-offender father was tasked with towing around my younger sister, the baby doll, because mom was the breadwinner and dad couldn’t find work. Already this was very stressing.
Planning our first week gave rise to early nerves. We had a list of bills to pay, we had to secure legal transportation to move about, and mom had to go to work and school while dad had to make his probation appointments. I peeked at our car title: a Ford Taurus with 180,000 miles. This was all too familiar: last summer I finally sold my 1999 Mercury Cougar – 172,000 miles under its belt – for 400 bucks. It was at that point I’m sure all car owners have experienced, where there were so many issues building on top of other issues that, if I had it any longer, I might have paid someone to take it from me. Even though I played a child in this simulation, I was very aware of the hardships a car of that age could pose.
The bell rang to start our first week (about 15 minutes in real-time) and we were off. Everyone scattered about frantically, and while my parents deliberated as to who would take the car, the bus came by and swept me off to school.