Upcoming Janesville event offers insight into poverty

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Anna Marie Lux
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

JANESVILLE--Jessica Schafer-Locher never realized the depth of poverty in Janesville until she began working at ECHO.

Then she saw firsthand the desperate need as city residents sought food, shelter and transportation.

Schafer-Locher is the client advocate and office manager at ECHO, a nonprofit faith- and community-sponsored charity.

“We don't have homeless people in the streets, like in big cities,” she said. “But poverty in our community is not getting any better. The need continues to rise year after year.”

Troubling numbers from the Janesville School District support what she says. The latest figures show that 49 percent of students are low income, a number which has doubled in the last decade.

Schafer-Locher knows if you have a good job and a full belly it can be hard to understand the kind of poverty that causes children to come to school hungry. So she invites people to a special event for insight into what it is like to be poor.

On Tuesday, April 29, the Rock County Homeless Intervention Task Force is sponsoring a four-hour “poverty simulation.”

Schafer-Locher is chairwoman of the task force.

“We want to make everyone aware of what it is like to live in poverty,” Schafer-Locher said.

Attendees will be assigned identities, given resources and hobbled by barriers. For example, one identity could be a single mother who has two kids, little cash and even fewer assets. Another could be a disabled man who cannot work.

Betty Gilbert of Janesville praises the exercise. Several years ago, when she began volunteering for ECHO, she thought it was important for her to understand what her clients were experiencing. So she signed up for a similar event.

Gilbert learned that being poor is time consuming and tiring.

“For anyone in poverty today, resources are available, but they are scattered,” Gilbert said. “Even if you are lucky enough to have a car, gas costs money. Most poor people are working at minimum wage jobs, and the money doesn't stretch.”

Gilbert is a retired assistant director of Janesville's Retired Senior Volunteer Program and serves on ECHO's board of directors.

“This is a wonderful learning experience,” she said. “I would love to see more people in the community get involved, especially those who are curious about whether there really is a poverty problem.”

She said pretending to be poor will not have the same impact as being poor or knowing someone who is struggling financially, but it is an introduction with lasting insight.

“People are not fully aware of the poverty,” she said. “It seems like every month we see the need rising.”

Schafer-Locher said economic conditions will not improve for the poor unless jobs offer living wages.

“Seventy-five percent of our clients are working,” she said. “But it is not enough to pay the rent and the utilities. I don't see this ending any time soon.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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