CORVALLIS -A law-abiding middle-aged woman found herself stretching the truth and suing her landlord during the hour she lived in a simulated state of poverty.
A nicely dressed man confessed he had stolen a camera. An agricultural representative took in boarders to make extra money so he could care for an elderly man.
These people-most of whom have never missed a meal or a paycheck-said they gained a better understanding of poverty by participating in a recent Poverty Simulation Workshop at Oregon State University.
"People who start out determined to pay the landlord on time soon find themselves willing to do things they never thought they'd do, just to put food on the table," said Sally Bowman, a Family Development Specialist with the OSU Extension Service.
The workshop initially was funded by the Barbara E. Knutson Family Policy program, and is now supported by the OSU Extension Service and the Oregon Department of Human Services. Its goal is to increase public understanding of poverty issues and to debunk the myths that surround them.
So far, more than 1,630 people have participated in the simulation. During four 15-minute intervals, each of them representing a week, participants assumed the roles and life circumstances of people whose situations are culled from welfare case files. No actual names of welfare clients are used.
Participants receive a packet containing a few pieces of colored paper representing their assets and documentation, including cash, transportation vouchers, possessions, and their social security number. Their task is to figure out where to go and how to get the needed services to care for themselves and their families.
Situated around the room are volunteers who have assumed the roles of banker, landlord, pawnshop broker, teacher, welfare caseworker, grocer, food bank operator, utilities collector and others who figure into the lives of the impoverished.
Workshop participants said at a debriefing afterward that they were surprised how exhausting and expensive it was just to arrange transportation between aid agencies, job interviews and food banks.
"We sure take our cars for granted," a young woman said.
Some participants engineered their own solutions, often by bartering with others for needed cash or goods. For example, a 25-year-old single mother who had been evicted from her unheated apartment rented a room from an elderly couple who had a 4-bedroom home, but needed some live-in help.
Under the arrangement, the young woman gained shelter for her asthmatic 3-year-old child, while the elderly couple gained help with errands, home upkeep, and cooking.
Some ingenious solutions also were illegal, as Bowman, who doubled as a police officer during the simulation, was quick to point out. One man offered to hire a couple's son and daughter to paint the walls of his business.
"Lots of high school kids earn $7 an hour after school," Bowman said.
"These kids are 8 and 6," the man replied.
"Oh, well, now there's a definite problem with that," Bowman said.
Although many praised the workshop, others were concerned that poverty in Oregon is growing faster than the truth about poverty.
For example, on the same day as the workshop, news reports were released from the state Department of Human Services announcing that 339,770 people received food stamps in November, roughly a tenth of the population and the highest number ever. The news followed close behind recent job figures that indicate Oregon's unemployment rate of 7.4 percent now is the nation's highest.
In addition to the recent economic downturn held responsible for those developments, Oregon has some long-term problems as well, notably its astronomical housing costs. Median rents increased from $345 to $500 between 1990 and 1998, with few new lower-income housing developments planned.
Workshop participants said that assuming the real problems behind those statistics-even during a simulation-made them feel desperate. That is a typical reaction, and it mirrors the truth, Bowman said.
"Living in poverty is like you are living in a constant state of crisis and fear." Bowman said. "You worry all the time what the next day will bring."