Role-playing representatives of organizations that focus on helping the poor get a small, bitter taste of what it means to be one of them
The average suburbanite probably could not survive a week if he or she traded places with any one of Milwaukee’s 161,000 impoverished, much less the 5,000 families surviving off household incomes of less than $10,000 a year.
Chances are if the stress and anxiety of living in desolate and unsafe conditions didn’t drive them to the blink of despair, the Herculean task of trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents or navigating through the entrenched and generational culture of poverty would weigh so heavily upon them that they would ultimately turn to drugs or alcohol as many disadvantaged succumb to.
That theory was put to the test to limited—albeit imaginary scenarios—recently when the Social Development Commission hosted a unique program in which middle-class professionals and service providers assumed roles as the impoverished Milwaukeeans they either serve through agencies, drive past as they travel to the lakefront, or whose images they critique based on unflattering portrayals on television.
The participants—most of whom were recommended for the program or were “volunteered” by their agencies or businesses—were clustered into “families” of various penurious circumstances to experience what the poor undergo daily:
- An elderly couple on fixed income in need of medicines they are forced to purchase in lieu of food;
- An abused, unmarried mother of four with a minimum wage job and bills that exceed her income;
- A “nuclear” working poor family whose head of household makes less in income than what a family in Waukesha contributes to charity even though he’s working two full-time jobs;
His wife juggles the household, children, a part-time job and must find time to study for the nursing assistant program at a for-profit college that is her only recourse for someone with a GED.
Those were but a few of the scenarios the unapprised participants operated from. The road they travelled in one evening was filled with detours and life changing intersections that brought to reality a world some thought they knew but turned out to be alien, and unnerving.
Among the lessons learned was how quickly a seemingly settled existence could be disrupted:
- A missing car payment triggered a repossession, thus eliminating transportation for a family whose income was tied to a suburbanite job site not among the routes offered by county buses;
- An unexpected illness resulted in a missed week of work, prompting a decision between paying rent and purchasing food;
- The April 15 discontinuance of the winter energy moratorium signaled a disconnection notice. Like thousands of other poor families, the soaring costs of energy often exceeds $600 a month for the older central city slum properties. Unable to keep up with the gas bills, they grow over the winter months to several thousand dollars by the end of the state mandated shut off moratorium, making April 15 a day of dread;
- And then to top matters off, all of the participants in the program were forced to deal with an unexpected eviction notice. It is an all too common occurrence among the poor, jeopardizing the health and welfare of thousands each year.
The evictions not only brought temporary homelessness but also impacted children’s schooling, accessibility to services and in many cases their welfare.
In addition to having their furnishings and clothing thrown on the sidewalk, the poor families must find the money for a month’s rent and security deposit. And many landlords won’t rent to a family with a prior eviction.
“I grew up poor, but it was a different kind of poverty and different (environmental) and cultural conditions back then,” assessed Kendra Little, one of the newly enlightened participants in the program.
A community outreach representative for United Healthcare who was raised in Milwaukee’s central city, thought she was well versed in the struggles encountered by lower than low-income African Americans in a city dubbed the worst place for Black people in America according to several reports. But her Friday night experience provided a new insight that was both unexpected and disheartening.
“I (portrayed) a pregnant teen in my group who didn’t get proper health care,” she explained. “Our family spent most of the time on (trying to meet) basic needs,” things most (middle class) take for granted.
“It’s a different world out there for the poor,” she said.
Getting from one side of town to the other for a medical appointment, juggling grocery bags on a bus, or borrowing money for laundry detergent and then guarding your clothing and yourself at an inner-city laundromat are facts of life for the poor that many middle-classes never have to experience.
Joseph Frodl grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin and while he would not classify his family as middle class, it wasn’t poor either. And he definitely did not confront the struggles faced by Milwaukee’s African American impoverished today.
“I left the session with a different perspective,” he said in an interview a week after the program. “We never had to face the hurdles the poor face.
“My life wasn’t easy (growing up). I had to put myself through school,” said the accountant who works at Goodwill Industries. “But my road was a lot smoother than that of those who are merely surviving.”
Frodl said he grew up without the barriers and roadblocks that most urban poor encounter.
In his “session family,” Frodl was forced to navigate with limited resources, including sharing a bus pass. “In my real life, if I need to go somewhere, I simply jump in my car,” he explained. “It’s hard to realize your life being limited by your resources.”
There was almost unanimous consensus among those I talked to during the evening on two points:
Most policymakers and politicians who supposedly work in the best interest of the poor don’t know the realities of poverty and the obstacles the poor face on a daily basis. Nor do they realize that poverty today is much different from the poverty of yesteryear.
The headline for a column I authored several years ago declared: “Today’s poor don’t know how to be ‘po’.”
The column posited that while my generation grew up impoverished, and under a system of legal apartheid, we were grounded in a strong nuclear family structure and lived in a community where people understood the last five letters of the word.
Little endorsed that theory as she too grew up in a community with a different moral code and culture.
“We had a sense of community. When I was growing up we interacted with our neighbors, shared resources. The church was the center of our community.
“Sadly, I’ve witnessed an erosion of the Black family. Our generation witnessed the crack era demise and watched as thousands of men were imprisoned and removed from the community.”
That phenomena and resulting government policies left dysfunctional families trying to hold things together.
Indeed, the values and mores we grew up with, I added, were replaced by a culture of poverty, a self-destructive philosophy that in many cases strips from its fraternity the motivation to succeed and replaces it with basic survival instincts and values many of us can’t relate to.
The overwhelming majority of the families in my neighborhood were nuclear. Today 70% of the Black households are headed by women, thus reducing the income and opportunities.
Milwaukee is also home to one of the nation’s highest high school dropout and teen pregnancy rates. The income gap is similar to that of South Africa.
Adding to those disconsolate statistics, Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country, with the highest infant mortality and Black male unemployment rates north of Mexico.
“Entrenched poverty, whether generational or by circumstance, impacts the (mindset),” Frodl said. “It’s not about color—Black or White—it’s about institutionalized (scenarios). I can better understand why many poor people today seek instant gratification, any semblance of comfort.
“It’s about what I want, not what I need. Those of us on the outside may not understand it, but then again, we have those comforts.”
The SDC program, which was sponsored by Anthem and drew several hundred people, didn’t conclude with solutions to the problem of Milwaukee’s 28% poverty rate. But it did open eyes and put a different perspective on a culture many suburbanites and middle-class city dwellers are seemingly oblivious to.
“I understand now how important our (Goodwill) services are,” Frodl said, “and why programs are needed to help and motivate the poor to get out of poverty versus merely being comfortable in it.
“I wish (state Assembly Speaker) Robin Voss could participate in this,” Frodl offered sarcastically. “At least then he could be empathetic.”
Frodl also suggested that public policies toward the poor should be reassessed.
“Back in the 1960s, I remember LBJ’s Great Society, it was supposed to solve the problems of poverty. We need to ask what went wrong? Is making people more comfortable in their condition the answer?
“Or is the solution to move people back to the time-tested culture Little and I grew up with?”
Maybe that will be the next project for SDC.