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Rock County poverty simulation dramatizes tough choices

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
May 22, 2010
— Charles and Cindy Chen of 321 Portland Street are not actual people. Neither are their teenage children, Carl and Connie. But their problems are real.

At a poverty simulation Friday at the Rock County Job Center, George Brunner and Delores Smith, two actual Janesville residents, were two of dozens who navigated fictionalized pitfalls of joblessness and social welfare.


In an hour-long exercise that represented a month in the life of a poverty-stricken family, Brunner and Smith “became” Charles and Cindy Chen, a fictional couple with no income and mounting debt.


The simulation, sponsored by the county’s Homeless Intervention Task Force, was planned to increase awareness of the struggles faced by the jobless and the working poor.


Consider the Chens’ situation: Charles, 43, is a laid-off steelworker who lost his $2,000-a-month job months ago. His unemployment benefits just ran out. Cindy, 42, a housewife, has never worked.


Somehow, the family must scrape together $1,440 a month for home loans, utilities and food. They’ve got just $125 in savings.


“This is not good,” said Smith, 46, who in real life is a supervisor for Rock County Human Services.


So began the (simulated) cycle of poverty.


As the Chens, Brunner and Smith navigated a sea rife with overloaded social service agencies, payday lenders, even criminals. In their struggle to feed their family and keep their home, they looked for jobs, pawned valuable personal items and signed up for welfare programs—all parts of the interactive exercise.


As the Chens tried to string together a budget and a game plan, they got bogged down by long lines and bureaucracy at government agencies.


As Cindy, Smith said she was frustrated by a long wait for food stamps. She said the caseworkers were impersonal and rude. Then Cindy got a call from school. Her children, Connie, 17, and Carl, 15, were being reprimanded for truancy.


“It’s a little demoralizing,” said Smith, in character as Cindy. “My husband Charles worked for years, and I took care of the kids. Now we’re criticized because the kids skipped school. At social services, they’re asking me why I never worked. We need help. Instead, we just get demeaned.”


Then, a break: Brunner’s Charles scores a first-shift job as an assistant hotel manager, earning $320 a week. Although the job pays less than half of what Charles earned as a steel worker, Brunner is excited.


“It’s something. At least I’m working. It’s a way to make ends meet, right?” said Brunner, 69, a Janesville City Council member and retired police chief.


One problem: It’s a week before Charles gets paid. Bills keep piling up, prompting Smith’s Cindy to start her own job hunt and to pawn an expensive camera for just $40.


“With all of this debt, one income’s not enough money. It’s not fast enough,” Smith said. “I’ve got to find work for myself.”


But Cindy’s job search gets sidetracked after the family’s car breaks down. Torn between spending on auto repairs and paying their electric utility, Brunner and Smith decide Charles should shell out for an expensive bus pass to get to work. That leaves Cindy stuck at home.


To cap off the month, the family’s mortgage payment is late because Charles can’t get off work before the lender’s office closes.


The Chens end the month with just $97 in the bank—less than they had a month earlier, when Charles was still unemployed.


Brunner said the exercise was an eye-opener. It showed him the balancing act the poor face daily.


“It’s frustrating to see that with all the work and the effort you put in, that no matter what you do, you’re still behind. What do you balance? Your finances or your family’s fight to exist?”



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