Poverty simulation proves eye-opening for Trenton teachers

By Crystal Burns

Emily Epperson’s husband went to work one morning and never came home. He didn’t call or text his wife or their two children, 14-year-old Ed and 15-year-old Ellen, send them an email or leave them note. He took the family’s only income and never looked back.

“Families” with similar stories huddled in the Trenton Rosenwald Middle School gym Thursday during a poverty simulation facilitated by the University of Tennessee Extension. Extension agents gave Trenton Special School District teachers specific details about their personas and situations, welcoming TES faculty in the morning and TRMS and Peabody High faculty in the afternoon.

The simulation was not a game. Teachers were instructed to think about what they and their families would actually do if faced with the situations presented.

“The main thing that you are trying to figure out is that with limited time and limited resources, how do you make priorities when every single thing that you have to accomplish is a must in terms of those priorities,” said Barbara Berry, UT Extension agent for Gibson County.

According to 2016 data, 36.8 percent of the population of Trenton lives below the poverty line, higher than the national average of 14 percent. The average median income of $29,503 is below the county, state and national averages. One in six Tennesseans receives food stamps and other assistance.

Tricia Wozny, a second grade teacher at Trenton Elementary School, took on the fictional Emily’s name and life, guiding her “children,” kindergarten teacher Stephanie King as Ed and fourth grade teacher Becky Dawson as Ellen, through a challenging “month” that would have seen them lose their home had they not been saved by the bell. (See sidebar.)

Teachers split the “month” into four, 15-minute “weeks” in which they navigated the welfare office, bank, employment office and even jail. In addition to those “day-to-day” difficulties, participants were also hit with “luck of the draw” cards, representing the unexpected situations that people run into in life.

“They can’t get a break,” said Stephanie King, a kindergarten teacher, said of families living in poverty. “It’s just one thing on top of another.”

Berry, UT Extension agent for Gibson County, led the debriefing, beginning with input from the volunteers that manned the various offices, which included welfare office, food pantry, school, landlord, quick cash, bank, employment office, utility collector, health department, grocer, pawn shop and jail.

Several of the volunteers revealed that they had ripped participants off, showing how some target the poor. Doug Lockard, the simulation’s landlord, attempted to get rent from the same individuals twice. One was able to prove she had paid by showing a receipt; another had no receipt and paid twice. Failure to ask for receipts also tripped up several “families” at the quick cash, where the volunteered admitted to shorting people transportation tickets and slipping herself money under the table. The pawn shop operator, banker and utility collector told similar stories.

Kenneth Bonds, who portrayed one of the drug dealers during the simulation, also noted participants’ desperation, saying he and his partner merely scouting the “community” the first two weeks of the month. By the third week, “families” were willing to store drugs in their homes in exchange for cash or to steal from their neighbors for the benefit of the dealers. Bonds and his partner committed some petty theft of their own, leaving many “families” in a bind.

“With your students, you never know what they’re dealing with,” Bonds said.

Berry has gone through the poverty simulator herself and said it was eye-opening. She hopes Trenton teachers walk away from it with more compassion for their students and families.

“We have lots of kids we work with that have to grow up very, very fast,” Berry said.

The goal, TSSD Supervisor of Teaching and Learning Michele Elliott said, was to see the world through a different lens. “I worry about our students and families as far as the barriers they face,” she said. “Maybe we can help some of these folks.”

Lacy Yeley, UT Extension agent for Carroll Co., and Tennille Short, Haywood Co. extension agent, helped facilitate the simulation. Other volunteers included Bubba Abbott, Rhonda Casey, Trenton Police Chief Bill Cusson, CeCe Jones and Dottye Jones.

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