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In Affluent Boca Raton, Philanthropists Try To Understand Poverty's Strain

Madeline Fox
Members of the Women's Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County try to sell some of their belongings to pay bills as part of a poverty simulation at B'nai Torah Congregation.

The women’s worried conversations about paying utility bills, scraping together enough change to pay for transportation and pawning jewelry to pay for medical treatment seemed at odds with the designer purses at their well-clad feet.

For the organizers of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County’s poverty simulation at B’Nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, that was the point.

The simulation has been used around the country to give teachers, judges and nonprofit workers a sense of the precarity and stress experienced by the people they serve who make just enough money to scrape by.

In Boca, it was organized to help the Federation’s Department of Women’s Philanthropy understand what “struggling to make ends meet” means in a tangible way – bills unpaid, jobs lost after absences forced by a family emergency, and precious hours lost waiting in an employment or social services office only to be sent away empty-handed.

Boca Raton’s median income is nearly $73,000, which tops both the statewide average and that of Palm Beach County residents as a whole by about $20,000 per year.

“I hope [participants] take away a sense of what reality is for a lot of our families in our community,” said Jewish Family Services senior vice president Beth Levine.

Her organization receives money from the Jewish Federation and its donors – who include women participating in the simulation – to fund food and cash assistance and other programs.

Participants gathered into multi-person families with different needs. Some needed to pay for and pick up medications for a disabled family member, some had younger kids who needed child care while they worked, and some were paying off a mortgage while others were trying to make rent.

Credit Madeline Fox / WLRN
The simulation participants gathered into chair-group "families" to strategize about how they'd make ends meet during each 15-minute "week."

The women spent four fifteen-minute weeks scrambling to meet their basic needs. It didn’t always go smoothly. Several were “evicted” after failing to pay their rent or mortgage. Others had run-ins with volunteers acting as police and child protective services.

Miriam Klein, who played a 9-year-old, was brought to juvenile hall when a “social worker” spotted her hocking jewelry at a pawnshop by herself to pay for her grandfather’s medication. She said what struck her the most was how financial strain cuts into the kind of family time she prizes in her own household.

“The weekend was all about budgeting, and what was coming next, and who needed to go where, and what we forgot the previous week,” she said. “It wasn’t about relaxing and coming together as a family.”

That all the participants had short, shared “weekends” between their 15-minute weeks to regroup and strategize is one of the limits of simulated versus real poverty. Many people in lower-wage industries might work weekends, or have schedules that change – often unpredictably – from week to week.

The biggest limitation of the simulation, though, is that after the hour-long “month” and a debriefing conversation, the women of the Women’s Philanthropy could leave the stress of unstable finances behind.

“It was reality kicking in, in some ways,” Klein said about going through the simulation. “But in other ways, you’re in a beautiful hall surrounded by people in beautiful clothing, living a beautiful life.”

It’s not so easy for the 170,000 people, or about 12 percent, of Palm Beach County residents living in poverty to leave those circumstances behind. Though the share of people in poverty has been dropping steadily since 2013, advocates say it’s gotten harder for Floridians to access safety net services through the state.

Cindy Huddleston, a senior policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute, said only 13 out of 100 families in poverty in Florida receive cash assistance. And from January 2018 to February 2019, an average 5,500 recipients lost access to food stamps each month because of sanctions – not because they no longer need the help.

In Palm Beach County, 81,000 households received food stamps in February, and 1,500 got cash assistance, according to the Department of Children and Families.

Credit Madeline Fox / WLRN
The families who weren't able to pay their rent or mortgage were "evicted" in the later weeks, and had to go to tables representing homeless shelters and social services to find a place to stay.

Simulation participants got a glimpse of the limited help available through the state. At one table representing a social services office, volunteer Karen Dern was meeting with participants to see if their simulated families qualified for cash or food help.

“We can give them food assistance and some temporary benefits, sometimes, depending on their qualifications,” she said. “We’re rarely able to fully help.”

Despite the simulation’s limitations, getting participants to understand some of the everyday challenges that come with financial insecurity was, to the event’s organizers, an important first step.

“It gives people an idea of how hard it is to live on this kind of money,” said Marcia Beckerman, one of the event’s facilitators.