Poverty and privilege: Interact Clubs learn about low-income obstacles

interact club pic

From left, Nathan Janson, Sally Passaro and Evelyn Russell portray a family as they visit a quick cash business during a poverty simulation exercise Saturday morning at The Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor. Participants in the simulation experienced some of the challenges low-income families face on a daily basis. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Benjamin Janson spent an hour in poverty Saturday morning.

The Lake Michigan Catholic High School senior took part in a poverty simulation session along with 50 students from other schools at the Boys & Girls Club in Benton Harbor.

Participants were assigned a persona with specific family members, life circumstances and various employment assignments. Some of the students had kids to look after and received “bus passes” to get from place to place.

The simulation was created as a way for participants to overcome misconceptions about poverty and motivate people to become involved in activities that reduce poverty in their communities.

The students belonged to various Interact Clubs, which operate alongside the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club. The Rotary Club had the Interact Clubs from Bridgman, Catholic, Lakeshore, St. Joseph and others take part in the event and learn as a collective group.

Over the course of an hour, participants began to understand what it would be like to live in a low-income family that was trying to survive from week to week.

The simulation was in a gym, with a few chairs placed in a circle to represent a family’s home. If students returned to their chairs and they were flipped down, that meant they had failed to properly pay off their mortgage. The majority of participants, at one point of the simulation, were in the homeless shelter portion of the gym.

Janson was a pregnant teenager during the simulation. The family he was a part of was evicted from their home, but were able to get it back after a lengthy process.

“We were able to pay off a lot of bills and tried to balance our time and money well,” Janson said. “Lack of time was a hard thing to overcome.”

Each group operated in four rounds – the 15-minute increments represented a week’s time. An hour of the simulation was meant to serve as a month in poverty.

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Participants from local high school Interact Clubs break into small family units Saturday morning during a poverty simulation exercise hosted by Access of West Michigan at The Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The shortened amount of time proved difficult for many who had to buy groceries, pay a mortgage, visit the Department of Human Services, find feasible transportation and take care of a family – while doing so with a limited amount of money.

Participants were also given cards throughout the hour-long program, which represented unexpected life events – good or bad.

When given a card, Janson and his family were forced to pay for new groceries and a repairman to fix their broken refrigerator.

Dayton Stewart, a Bridgman senior, played a high school graduate in his teens who bypassed college to help support his family.

“We were only one disaster away from getting evicted,” said Stewart, who learned the importance of asking for a receipt. “We actually paid our mortgage, but they said we didn’t, so we had to pay it twice.”

With more than 50 million Americans living in poverty, students learned how hard it is to get out of that cycle.

“Balancing your time and money is harder when you don’t have the resources,” Stewart said. “I learned how easy it is to find yourself in this situation one day.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 19, 2017)


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