Poverty Simulation 'Opens Eyes'

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Eunice Ussar, 85, sighed as he walked away from the utility office, struggling to make the payment to keep his heat for the winter. With no family to help support him, Ussar says it's hard to come up with a strategy for budgeting his poverty-level income.

But Eunice Ussar is actually Tim Hoffman, an employee of Consumers Energy and a participant in the company-sponsored Poverty Simulation Workshop.

"People think that when people are poor, they don't want to work," Hoffman said. "But this is a lot of work, trying to make sure you have food and medicine to support you. It's very exhausting, very draining and there's not enough time in the day to do it."

Hoffman was one of 120 people from several companies taking part in the four-hour workshop, getting a taste of what it's like to live on a fixed income.

"This is representing what it may be like to live in poverty for a month," said Whitney Skeans, Consumers Energy's customer assistance coordinator. "Trying to juggle limited resources, with the vast number of needs and family members lots of factors that impact the ability to survive in poverty. It is a method of survival."

Placed in families in varying situations -- some lived alone, others took care of elderly relatives, still more had children to send to school -- participants bounced around to different banks, schools, employment offices and social service agencies.

"I see a lot of confusion, I see a lot of frustration, I see a lot of worry," said Catrina Beeny of the Kalamazoo Poverty Reduction Initiative. "Even though this is just a simulation, people feel that stress with being in poverty and not knowing where to go."

The purpose, Beeny said, is to bust misconceptions people may have about poverty. She says there is no one "face" of poverty.

"It's an array of people," she said. "It's not a race, it's not a gender, it's not an age, it's everyone. Sometimes it's a situational thing; sometimes its generational. A divorce, a death, a loss of a job that can cause people who were doing just fine who were working hard can cause them to be at poverty level."

And participants say the message was received loud and clear.

"It's just real life situations that we may not experience ourselves but that happens with the customers we serve," said Lisa Jones, a participant who works for The Heat and Warm Fund. "I thought I had a good understanding for the customers we serviced, but I don't.

"I think it's a great experience for everyone to go through and an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life."

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