OCTOBER 4, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – Charles Chen, a married father of three, needed a job quickly. His unemployment benefits were running out, he and his family couldn’t afford his wife’s health insurance, and his teenage daughter was due to give birth in two months. He thought he could get employment training, but he went to the wrong office. He thought he could get food stamps, but not for a month. His child needed glasses. The mortgage payments were overdue. After running around, waiting in line, and dealing with one rude bureaucrat after another, time was up.
“Charles Chen” was actually Joan Yenawine, the associate creative director at CJP. Yenawine was assigned the role of Charles Chen as part of the CJP Poverty Simulation, which assigns false identities and situations to participants to help them gain a preliminary understanding of the daily stresses and humiliations brought about by poverty. The simulation, which is part of CJP’s broader Anti-Poverty Initiative, will take place on the North Shore on Oct. 14 at Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
“The poverty simulation is something we initiated as part of the anti-poverty program to try to bring recognition to the issue, because when you are facing financial distress there’s a lot of stigma about reaching out,” said Beth Tauro, director of planning, outreach, and engagement at CJP. “We thought the best way to reduce stigma is to educate people about what it feels like to be in distress.”
At the beginning of the simulation, which is adapted from a model designed by the Missouri Community Action Network, participants are assigned identities and biographies. Some are people with families and bills to pay who have just lost their jobs. Others are young children whose only caretakers are elderly grandparents, or people who lost all their money due to illness or accident. Participants, who are grouped together into imaginary families, receive a toolkit with items like fake money, transportation vouchers, and food stamps.
Meanwhile, a staff of trained volunteers – usually former participants in the simulation – play the figures of authority that people in poverty come up against in their daily struggles. Told to assume a personality and stay in character, volunteers take on the roles of social workers, landlords, police officers, pawnbrokers, and the like. In a series of 15-minute segments that represent a week of time, participants run back and forth between these stations, trying to obtain signatures, stamps, advice, compassion, and perhaps most importantly of all: money. Not everyone makes it out intact.
At the end of the two-hour simulation, exhausted participants and volunteers debrief what the experience was like, and in the past, people who have been through real-life poverty have spoken about their experiences. According to Tauro, many participants report feelings of anxiety throughout, even though it’s only a simulation. That was certainly the case for Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai, who participated in a simulation last December where he played a 5-year-old boy whose home was foreclosed and ended up in a homeless shelter. “I was getting really anxious,” he said. “I felt it. I can’t imagine the life. It showed you the layer and layers that poverty brings … how much, much more complicated life starts getting when you don’t have money.”
Yenawine felt affronted at the indignities she and her fellow participants suffered. “An alarming number of my colleagues had been forced out of their homes and into a shelter,” she said. “Poverty is not fair. It’s sort of like quicksand; no matter how hard you struggle, you’re unlikely to get out on your own.”
The experiences of the simulation have been experienced in real life by many Jews on the North Shore. A 2015 study revealed that 12 percent of the Greater Boston Jewish community responded positively to one or more indicators of economic insecurity. Lori Kagan, program manager at CJP’s Anti-Poverty Initiative, pointed out that Jews are susceptible to the same forces that drive everyone else into poverty, but may be less inclined to disclose their situation. “Jews are not immune to any of these forces,” said Kagan. “I think there’s a greater stigma in the Jewish community regarding poverty – some of that is people think of poverty as something their grandparents or their great-grandparents were in, and Jews have moved beyond that. There’s a sense of shame.”
Under CJP’s Anti-Poverty Initiative, struggling Jews can receive free, confidential help. Since its founding three years ago, the initiative has helped 2,800 families, 180 of whom are Jews living on the North Shore. The centerpiece of this initiative is the CJP Warmline, which connects callers to a Jewish partner organization, where a care manager will help them navigate and access all the aid and services available throughout the Jewish community.
Those situations may not necessarily look as one might expect. Kagan pointed out that 60 percent of clients have either a bachelor’s or post-graduate degree. Many clients are people who were financially solvent until a series of misfortunes brought them into a situation they never imagined they’d be in. Under the Anti-Poverty Initiative, more people are learning how to understand and how to help.
The simulation will take place at Temple Sinai on Oct. 14. Register by Oct. 9 at cjp.org.