Round Lake school’s simulation aimed to show teachers, community the effects of poverty

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After a Round Lake District 116 middle school took part in a social experiment to simulate living in poverty, some participants left with tears and frustration over the challenges facing impoverished families and students.

“It was heavy on my heart and it makes me want to advocate for these kids,” said Laura Abundes, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Magee Middle School who, in the simulation, was assigned the role of a married mother of three children whose family was living in poverty.

Abundes was one of 105 staff and community members who took part in the hourlong Community Action Poverty Simulation program Aug. 13 in the middle school gym.

CAPS was created by the Missouri Community Action Network as a way to help people understand the realities of poverty and inspire action from policymakers and community leaders. Harper College in Palatine hosted a CAPS simulation in 2018.

At Magee Middle School, participants played roles of members of low-income families and social service workers in contact with them.

Income varied for the simulated “families” of two to five people, with $400 in groceries per week and possibly $300 in rental assistance for a family of five. The families could be those receiving benefits through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, people with disabilities or senior citizens on Social Security.

Families had unique circumstances in the simulation, such as college-educated people working minimum wage jobs, multigenerational families or single parents.

They were tasked with providing basic necessities and shelter on a limited budget via play money during the course of four 10- to 15-minute “weeks.” They interacted with human service agencies, grocers, pawnbrokers, bill collectors, currency exchange workers, job interviewers and police officers.

The working members of the household were required to pay a certain amount for food, mortgage and utilities. Transportation “passes” were mandatory for anyone in the family to get around.

Obstacles such as emergency payments, traffic, health complications and more could take money away from participants. With limited food and housing benefits, some people had to be turned away and even lose time they needed to do necessary tasks.

Many of the families struggled to live day to day, whether it was eating enough, paying their mortgage on time or getting to work. Roughly a third of families in the simulation were evicted or had their utilities shut off. Half of the families forgot to get enough food to last throughout the week.

Counselor Amy Taucher said it was designed to be that way.

“Nobody teaches anyone how to live in poverty,” Taucher said. “We have students and parents really going through this right now. They lived that for an hour. Imagine living like this every day.”

Staff at John T. Magee Middle School in Round Lake played the role of social service providers, grocers and others during a simulation of living in poverty.

Staff at John T. Magee Middle School in Round Lake played the role of social service providers, grocers and others during a simulation of living in poverty.
– Courtesy of Heather Bennett

Afterward, participants discussed their experiences and what they learned. Some of the faculty members expressed anger and cried over the thought of not being able to provide for their families.

Abundes said it was intense to see how quickly things can spiral for families dealing with multiple systems. She said that became an eye-opening experience the more real-life scenarios dawned on her.

“You’re at the mercy of places and circumstances that are out of your control,” Abundes said. “It was emotionally and physically taxing.”

Avon Township Supervisor Michele Bauman played the role of a social services receptionist and noted the looks of frustration on people’s faces after they were turned away for help.

In a Facebook statement, she talked about how a social worker told other participants that sometimes parents miss things like scheduled parent-teacher conferences because of other problems that arise.

“Even though this was a simulation, the look of frustration on their faces was authentic,” Bauman said. “This simulation is the reality for many people in our county.”

Planning for the simulation started in the spring. Taucher said it was meant to take place in 2020 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that made it particularly timely.

Taucher said the pandemic and poverty are among many adverse childhood experiences that can affect children’s ability to learn.

In Round Lake schools, 80.4% of students are considered to be low-income. At Magee, it’s 84.9%.

Taucher and Heather Bennett, District 116 executive director of engagement and community relations, hope other schools in the district follow the middle school’s lead. Taucher said she wants to make the simulation a yearly activity for the school.

“When a child’s basic needs aren’t met, they cannot learn,” Taucher said. “They’re not adults and we can’t expect our kids to just carry on through trauma. Their brains don’t function that way. We have to create that safe space for them so they can move forward.”

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August 20, 2021 at 06:21PM

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