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Local officials get a taste of a life ‘without’

Last Friday, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon was picked up by police at the community center bearing his name and placed in jail for distributing a substance assumed to be drugs.

Of course, Aragon was not guilty of any crime, but merely playing a role he’d been assigned while participating in a poverty simulation sponsored by the Pagosa Springs Community United Methodist Church and run by Pastor Don Ford.

Unfortunately, only about half of the invitations that Ford sent out (to various government and social service agencies) were answered with a presence for the simulation.

“I’m a little disappointed with the turnout,” Ford told SUN staff at the start of the exercise. “Not one officer of the law is here.”

Indeed, no one from area law enforcement chose to participate in the exercise (although those officers are daily called upon to respond to the negative effects of poverty); furthermore, aside from Aragon, out of the six remaining members of the Pagosa Springs Town Council, only trustee Darrell Cotton represented the board. However, several members of town staff were on hand.

Although Joanne Irons participated in the administrative end of the simulation (playing the role of a social worker), none of the other three directors represented the school district (Assistant District Superintendent Linda Reed participated in the simulation).

The simulation was organized in order to give local officials a sense of what the poor deal with on a week-to-week basis, especially those people who live paycheck to paycheck, or who attempt to survive with no paycheck at all.

The issue of poverty is especially timely given a report released on Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau that showed a dramatic increase in poverty throughout the United States (see related story).

However, during a debriefing session following the simulation, Ford stated that the effects of poverty — especially the frustration of trying to acquire necessities or deal with agencies offering assistance — had been dampened due to the lack of participation.

As such, lines for government assistance were half as long as Ford intended; available jobs and child care were double what the scenario had called for; lines for various other resources were much shorter than had been planned; and the simulation’s limited allocated resources were more plentiful, essentially making it easier for participants to succeed at getting by.

Participants were assigned roles and placed into family units, then provided with a narrative describing their situation.

Then, with the simulation broken into four, 15-minute blocks (each block representing a week), the participants scrambled to try and provide for their families — finding a job, arranging daycare (or enrolling children in school), applying for assistance, paying bills, arranging for transportation, dealing with neighboring criminal elements (and the police) or lawbreakers in the family, all while attempting to balance those needs within a limited time frame.

As Ford told the group prior to the start of the exercise, the simulation was designed to be as realistic as possible in order to give participants a sense of what it’s like to struggle as a low-income family.

“This is not a game. This is not Monopoly,” Ford said at the start of the exercise.

Pointing out how participants were to approach their roles as realistically as possible, Ford added, “A teenager will not sit quietly at home all day. A child who hasn’t eaten all day will cry and complain until they’re fed.”

Despite the meaning of the exercise, Ford conceded that the impact of the simulation had been dampened due to dismal attendance by local leaders, government officials and staff.

Ford said he hoped to schedule another simulation that, if well-attended, would provide a more realistic perspective on the lives of the poor.

jim@pagosasun.com

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