Simulation offers a glimpse of the misery of poverty

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Saturday, April 17, 2010
— I am Pedro Peters.

I am 1. I live in southern Wisconsin with my family.

Most of the time.

Last month, I spent a few nights with foster families when my parents got arrested.


Daddy is the assistant manager at a hotel. It’s a very good job. Mommy works part time there as a maid.

My sister is 6. She pinches me, but nobody knows about that. She’s mad because her daddy doesn’t live with us.

Mommy gets mad when she has to wait in line at the bank, the grocery store, the pawnshop and the cash store.

I wait in my car seat on the floor.

A lot.

“Pedro” was one of dozens of characters in Friday morning’s poverty simulation at the Walworth County Health and Human Services Department in Elkhorn.

Family service advocates and volunteers played the roles of service providers such as caseworkers, landlords, a grocery store owner and a cash store teller.

A Walworth County sheriff’s deputy was busy arresting people, tracking down wandering “children” and responding to burglary and theft reports.

One man played the role of a rather successful criminal. He sold drugs, stole property, robbed a bank and tried to rob one man.

Others played the role of families living in poverty.

The simulation lasted one hour and was divided into 15-minute “weeks.” The families tried for one “month” to keep their homes, keep the power on, buy food and work through the unexpected but typical things that might happen to families during a normal week.

For example, Pedro, played by Gazette reporter Ann Marie Ames, got the flu one week and later had to be rushed to the hospital after a kitchen accident.

His sister, played by Nancy Zikuda, a housing specialist with the Walworth County Housing Authority, missed school because she was dropped off late one day.

His mother, Perla Perez, was played by Lisa Sandoval with Walworth County Early Head Start in Delavan.

Pedro’s parents were late one night picking him up from day care. The baby spent a couple days in foster care after his parents were jailed on suspicion of child neglect.

Other families dealt with job losses, utility cut-off notifications, evictions and a breakout of lice at the day care.

The one person who moved easily around the room without the burden of children or debts was Gateway Technical College student Ryan Rodriguez, who played the role of an unnamed criminal.

He stole TVs and stereos from families, sold drugs to teens, bought a gun at the pawnshop, robbed a bank and tried to rob a man.

In addition to spending time in jail on suspicion of child neglect, Perez spent “hours” in jail when she couldn’t pay a speeding ticket. The “criminal” got a friend to post bail in minutes.

“You guys have to stay in jail. The criminal goes free because he has money,” deputy Alex Torres of the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office said to Perez.

Torres played the dual role of parole officer and correctional officer.

He observed how easily the criminal moved around and how many choices he had.

“They (criminals) more than anybody know how to skirt the system,” Torres said.

A month in the life of the Peters-Perez family

Things were looking good for Pablo Peters, 27, and his girlfriend, Perla Perez, 23, two characters in Friday’s Walworth County poverty simulation.

Early in the month, Peters got promoted from security guard to assistant manager of the local hotel.

Along with a raise, the promotion included a month of free bus rides, which made things easier for the one-car family.

Perez got a part-time job at the same hotel. That should have helped cover the shortage of child support from her ex-husband.

Perez has a 6-year-old daughter, Patricia, who sneakily pinched her 1-year-old half-brother, Pedro.

But Peters’ raise didn’t go very far after Perez got pulled over for speeding, Pedro had to go to the emergency room, and the family paid off a loan from the pawnshop.

On top of all that, Peters and Perez got arrested for child neglect after failing to pick up little Pedro from day care.

It was the unexpected that kept the family from getting ahead, said Jeff Rosendahl, a member of the Elkhorn Fund Board of Directors.

Rosendahl played the role of Pablo Peters.

“My promotion to assistant hotel manager, which was probably the best job in the room, should have made up the shortage we faced going into the month,” Rosendahl said.

“But the speeding ticket and the child neglect arrests took up the extra we had to cover the shortfall.”

Rosendahl said he and his girlfriend, Perez, played by Lisa Sandoval with Early Head Start, might have come out farther ahead if they had a few minutes to plan between each 15-minute “week.”

But that’s probably the way it goes for many families who live paycheck to paycheck, Rosendahl said.

“If I just had a day to sit and plan, but we don’t have that luxury.”

In their words

After Friday’s Walworth County poverty simulation, participants spent time debriefing about their experiences:

- “I had to hand out almost all the nutrition warnings I had. Buying food just wasn’t a priority. Families got swamped in by all the other issues they had to deal with.”

—Cristina Parentes, UW-Extension nutrition educator, in the role of a Spanish-speaking grocery store owner.

- “Everybody wanted everything immediately, but they never came prepared, or they waited too long to apply for benefits.”

—Tobie Watts, Peoples Bank employee and Walworth County Crisis worker, in the role of caseworker.

- “I saw grandparents caring for grandchildren and not knowing where the kids’ parents were. That meant they had to go to court. One woman had to decide whether to apply for benefits or take her daughter to court.”

—Lisa Krolow with Catholic Charities, in the role of caseworker

- “People overlook the small obstacles that law enforcement throws up in their lives. One ticket might cost $250. People don’t realize how much that impacts a normal person’s life. As officers, we don’t like doing that.”

—Walworth County Sheriff’s Office deputy Alex Torres

- “Some parents kept their kids away from me. Others didn’t care who I talked to.”

—Ryan Rodriguez, criminal justice student, playing the role of a criminal.

- “I observed a lot of families that relied heavily on their children to make decisions and help with daily activities.”

—Sarah Boss, executive director of the Walworth County Housing Authority

and director of the simulation

Last updated: 1:34 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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