HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. Over the past semester, students in our Inequality in America program wrote a series of blog posts on a topic of their choosing. The only instruction? Select a theory or reading that intersects with your own lived experience. Over the next few months we’ll publish those powerful reflections from our Inequality students. You can find all of the posts by searching the HECUA classrooms category on our blog.
No Room for Error
by Peter Schrader
What’s worse than having to pay rent, support a family and make car payments? Trying to do it with no money. Poverty is straining in many ways, and mentally it takes a much bigger toll than many believe, in fact, some say it can take 8 years off of your life expectancy. “Get off your ass and get a job” they tell you. “They” being folks who have spent their whole lives in decent economic standing.
For most of my life I was stuck somewhere in between the classic conservative method of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, and the liberal approach which focuses much more on fixing the structure that caused the downfall in the first place. When I say somewhere in between the two, I mean that I was about 75% leaning towards the liberal approach, with the other 25% of me saying that you still have to work hard to be successful. Essentially what it boils down to is the structure vs. agency argument. This is where it got tricky for me, because I felt very strongly that if someone worked hard, they could at least achieve a decent standard of living. What I didn’t always factor into the equation was the fact that sometimes things don’t always go as planned.
In an activity we did about a month ago in South Minneapolis at the GMCC Urban Immersion Retreat Center, I got just the slightest introduction to what it’s like to have your back up against the wall in poverty. During the activity, we used a simulation to demonstrate the everyday struggles that come with living in poverty. The amazing thing to me is that for the simulation we (my group and I) were actually given a better financial standing than the poverty line, but we still managed to go quite a ways into debt. The thing that really stood out to me was that we as a group were not making ill-advised financial decisions, but there were often obstacles coming up that we couldn’t avoid even if we tried. With the little income we were working with, it was only a matter of time until we went into debt if things started going south. And they sure did. Only minutes into the simulation, my group ran into a big issue. Our apartment was inspected and our walls had lead paint…the cost to fix it was more than our monthly income, which left us with very little to work with.
The objective of the simulation was to show the class how difficult it can be to live day to day when you are in debt or on the verge of it. For me, it did much more than that. I was anxious just doing the simulation. I realized how tough it was if you put yourself in the shoes of these folks who are doing this everyday in real life. No classroom at any university can teach this kind of material in a standard lecture and make students feel the way that I did while doing the simulation. The feeling you get when you’re broke and hopeless, and all you wish for is something to go your way, but instead things just keep going downhill. In the United States 13.5% of people live in poverty, and that’s decided by a poverty “line” that is extremely low: according to www.healthcare.gov it’s $24,300 for a family of four.
To even imagine having less money than we already were given in the simulation, and be expected to make it through day after day just blew my mind. Ever since the simulation, I’ve wondered how people of the United States’ behavior would change if every single one of them had to experience extreme poverty at some point in their life.