The goal of the poverty simulation the other day was to give Wegmans employees a glimpse into what it’s like to live on what the poor have to scrape by on every day.
For that audience, it worked. Frustration mounted as the numbers refused to add up when trying to pay for food, housing, medical bills and unexpected expenses on minimal income.
But as middle-class folks facing some of those same squeezes, I’m not sure the workers were the optimal demographic.
The target audience should be higher up the economic and political ladder: elected officials, especially some local members of Congress.
Monday’s role-playing exercise, sponsored by the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, was one of about 20 per year done for businesses, universities and community organizations.
But let’s face it: The people who really need sensitizing are those insulated in their governmental world with their taxpayer-funded health care as well as salaries and revolving-door job prospects that ensure they never feel what their constituents go through.
United Way organizers need about 35 participants to run the workshops, which shouldn’t be a problem. Our lawmakers have enough staffers and campaign contributors to fill a class.
Rather, the problem is getting some of them interested in the plight of the poor. Not many are, if the experience of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York is any indication. The alliance regularly co-hosts “Problems of Poverty” bus tours in Buffalo neighborhoods to examine the challenges of surviving on low or no income and highlight ways those residents try to help themselves.
Not surprisingly, those volunteering for the eye-opening excursions typically are from community agencies already sensitive to the issue, or staffers sent by bosses who are.
Conspicuously absent are the elected officials who make the laws.
The Homeless Alliance publicizes its tours on a Listserv containing some 800 names, including local officials and Western New York members of Congress, said Executive Director Dale Zuchlewski. Among local congressional members, only Rep. Brian Higgins has sent staffers, he said.
“No one else has shown up,” he said. A couple of Buffalo officials also have sent staffers, he said, but that’s about it.
In other words, the elected policymakers who need it most are not the least bit interested. You can only wonder, for instance, if Reps. Chris Collins and Tom Reed would be so eager to slash food stamps from an agriculture bill if they had a real appreciation for what it’s like to go hungry.
Would it be so hard to raise the minimum wage if lawmakers tried to live on it, even if just for a couple of days? When I tried as part of the alliance’s “poverty challenge” a few years ago, the mere cost of maintaining a car each day put me in the hole before I even got out of bed.
Granted, simulating poverty is nothing like actually going hungry; but the exercise can change perspectives, as proven by the follow-up surveys the United Way distributes, said Katie Lyons, project director.
“If some of our elected officials would get into the program, I think it would open their eyes,” Zuchlewski said.
His group offers two more poverty tours this fall and two next spring.
In the words of director Spike Lee, Western New York officials need to “Get on the Bus.”