Central Missouri Community Action orchestrated a poverty simulation on August 16 that included 80 faculty members from the Boonville R-1 School District. The event, in part, was meant to break stereotypes associated with the label of poverty.

If you're reading this and live in either Cooper or Howard County, you have a 15 percent chance of falling within what is legally considered to be the often-stereotyped category of poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cooper County's poverty level, determined with numbers based on a family of four living on $22,314 per year, has increased by 4.7 percent since the 2000 census. Additionally, while a much larger percentage of families subside on incomes above the mandated poverty line, many of those incomes still remain low enough to qualify a family for food stamps and Medicaid.

Central Missouri Community Action's local office, in conjunction with the Boonville School District, provided a poverty simulation program for participants on August 16. CMCA is a designated 501(c)3 with self-stated strategic commitments that include engaging the community to assure that all people have their basic needs met, enhancing community capacity to ensure all individuals have lifelong learning opportunities, building community capacity to enhance economic and community assets, building relationships across class and race lines, and developing an innovative and caring agency dedicated to being an influential leader in our communities.

"One of the reasons we wanted to do it here in the District is that with at least 60 percent of students on the free and reduced-priced meal system, it was obvious that it was a concern we should somehow address. What that simulation was designed to do for the participants was to create a sense of empathy around those individuals that are in poverty – it sparks some desire for education in the matter as well," said Evan Melkersman, CMCA's Community Organizer for Cooper, Howard and Moniteau Counties.

CMCA, Melkersman points out, has a marked goal of doing away with stereotypes that associate themselves with the label of poverty.

"We're trying to break those stereotypes that say people in poverty are lazy or don't work – 64 percent of the individuals that walk through the doors at CMCA do work. It's more of the working-poor that our agency serves," he said.

According to the CMCA, 880,000 Missourians live within the bounds of poverty each day. Of those, 230,000 are children. Missouri's total population sits at approximately 6,011,000. CMCA's stated objective concerning poverty simulations is not only to reduce stereotypes, but to provide a hands-on opportunity for members of a community to walk in the shoes of low-income families. The simulation allows participants to assume the role of a family member attempting to make ends meet on a less than satisfactory budget. They divide each simulation into four 15-minute "weeks" – in which attendees must maintain a home and provide for a family on a limited income. Angela Hirsch, CMCA's Community Services Director, was responsible for facilitating the simulation.

"We had 80 participants – a majority of teachers – from the Boonville School District. As I was coordinating this effort through the assistance of Dr. Mark Ficken, District Superintendent, four of the outcomes he stated that he desired as a result of the poverty simulation included gaining an understanding of the daily routine of individuals and families living in poverty, creating empathy among school staff for those living in poverty, developing skills to better deal with students and their families who live in poverty and developing a district-wide plan for supporting and nurturing students attending Boonville R-1 Schools who come from poverty or a low socio-economic background," said Melkersman, while referencing Dr. Ficken.

Ficken iterated his belief that the simulation was a success for his own understanding and for that of his staff.

"As the economy continues to stay somewhat dormant and unemployment has gone up, we're seeing an increase in the amount of poverty in our district. We thought it was extremely important for our staff to understand the rigors of poverty and what people face when presented with it. The staff as a whole left with, I believe, a new appreciation of a child sitting in classroom, when sometimes 6-7 kids out of every 10 come from a poverty-like situation. You can try to teach, but sometimes you have to go above and beyond when education is not necessarily the number one goal for underprivileged families," Ficken said.

Melkersman voiced a similar concern and pointed out the dynamic that many teachers face. Often, he remarked, teachers mistake lack of interest with laziness on the part of both parents and students. Such is not the case.

"If they send a note home with a student and that note doesn't get returned – the teachers much of the time assume that certain parents may not care – and that's not necessarily the truth," said Melkersman.

Ficken and Melkersman each stated that education in any form, more often than not, is negligible in the eyes of many struggling families when basic needs are not met.

"Classroom learning, realistically, is not going to be a number-one concern for children or their parents when their biggest worries center around not going hungry. What's the first thing anyone worries about, in terms of life? Getting food in their body," said Ficken.

Ultimately, the work CMCA is responsible for and currently involved in seeks to help those in poverty break out of their respective cycles and achieve self-reliance. Other Missouri groups benefiting from poverty simulations include: Jefferson City Public Schools, Columbia Public Schools, Fayette Public Schools, Moniteau R-1 Public Schools, the University of Missouri, Linn State Technical University, Westminster University, the Missouri Department of Corrections, William Woods University, Central Methodist University, Columbia College, Columbia Chamber of Commerce, Child Advocates, law enforcement officers, family support case managers and high school students.

For more information on Central Missouri Community Action, readers can visit their website at www.showmeaction.org or call them at 660-882-5601.