Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

By Dani Hemmat

Real understanding helps eliminate poverty


November 9, 2018

Dani Hemmat

Participants in the Boulder County Circles Campaign Poverty Simulation learn that a lot of time is spent standing in lines when you’re living in poverty.

Poverty is a very real, yet complex issue in Boulder County. The federal government considers the poverty level to be a family of four living on $25,000 or less a year. In Boulder County, however, that family of four would need to earn over $86,000 a year to pay for all the things needed to raise a family--housing, medical care, food, transportation, clothing, taxes and all those necessities that add up.

Every year, the Boulder County Circles Campaign presents a poverty simulation event that is open to anyone in the public, in an effort to help foster a deeper understanding of what it means to be living in poverty in this place we call home.

The Boulder County Circles Campaign helps small groups of people lift themselves out of poverty to maintain a thriving life here in Boulder County. This year’s event was held on November 4 at the Mapleton YMCA in Boulder and had about 43 participants.

Each participant is given a budget, and then faced with simulated situations that low-income, working individuals encounter every day. Participants must navigate different stations while working with their limited and meager budgets. Tough choices that many face every day have to be made during the simulation. How to pay for child care in order to go to work, or choosing between paying rent or paying for health care are part of the day. Standing in line and waiting for transportation or rent vouchers is time that could be spent taking care of one’s children or working to earn money, but those transportation vouchers are needed to get to that job. Paying the heat bill is essential, but so is feeding a family and paying car insurance. Choosing between these necessities is a daily, harsh fact of life for many who live here.

Circles Coordinator Marnita Rodriguez said, “People are frustrated. They want more (vouchers, etc.) than we can give. Things aren’t going their way (in the simulation), it’s difficult and frustrating. But that’s poverty.”

She added,”One family that signed up was missing some money in their packet. It wasn’t intended, but we let it be known that sometimes you lose money. It’s a reality.”

Poverty is almost always an endless cycle unless someone gets the help they need and learns the tools necessary to lift themselves out of that cycle. In 2017, Boulder County Circles Campaign helped 18 people graduate from the program. Those graduates remain free from public assistance and are continually improving their assets, income and quality of life.

Although the guests at the simulation didn’t know it until closer to the end of the three-hour event, the people who ran each station at the event were all either graduates or current participants in the Circles Campaign.

“It’s a big part of the simulation,” said Rodriguez, “to have people running the booths that have been through our program. They’re the ones who know what it’s really like to live like this.”

Jennifer Kelly, who will graduate from the program in about six months, was in charge of the booth that offered payday loans, which purports to help people make ends meet when they have more month than money, but ends up putting them deeper into a financial hole each time.

“This program (Circles) really works,” Kelly said. “It’s amazing, and I’m trying to get my friends that would benefit from it to sign up. It helps people help themselves and change their lives.” Kelly started the program while working at WalMart, and is now in a higher paying job because of the work she’s done with Circles and the Community Action Plan.

The purpose of the annual poverty simulation is to help people gain a deeper understanding of what barriers the working poor here in Boulder County face constantly. People with housing and multiple jobs are still struggling to put food on the table and buy shoes for their children.

Lara and Brian Van Matre participated in the challenge along with three of their children. The idea that their kids could be exposed to a different side of life was appealing to the Van Matres, who hoped that the day would impact them all for the better.

“It really drives home the point,” said Lara Van Matre, “that time is a commodity, and you can’t be everywhere you need to be at once in order to make ends meet and get what you need.”

Brian Van Matre agreed, “It’s very, very frustrating.”

Having to experience what that feels like, even if it’s just for a few hours, can help inform each participant with a clearer understanding. According to Rodriguez, about 5-10 percent of the poverty simulation participants end up volunteering with the Circles Campaign each year.The Circles Campaign hopes that with that better understanding, people will work harder to support a more effective response to poverty in their own communities, because by lifting each other up, we lift ourselves up.


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