Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Tyranny of the Moment: An RPG Review

If you learned to play the original Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s with an anal-retentive dungeon master – the kind who would plunge you into darkness if you mistakenly drew your sword without first telling him that you were carefully placing your torch in a wall bracket – you might be pretty good at playing CAPS, the Community Action Poverty Simulation.

Last week my friend Susan, a fellow “church rat” and member of the vestry at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, invited me to participate in an educational offering, sponsored by a pair of local non-profits -- the Domestic Violence Network and the Julian Center – utilizing a pretty remarkable Role-Playing Game developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action.

Susan and I were on the invitation list because we’re active in several of the feeding ministries and other outreach activities that Trinity sponsors in our inner-city neighborhood.   Susan’s husband, a judge, had been through the experience, along with his staff, and recommended it. 

So on Tuesday morning I joined about 60 other people – all but seven of them women – in the community room of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church; was given a randomly-assigned role to play, and met my “family” to hear our instructions.    In this simulation, most of us play members of one of about a dozen families – some adults, some children; some working, some unemployed, some retired, some disabled.   The rest of the group played the staff of the various businesses and community organizations with which we would interact:   grocery stores, banks and pay-day loan centers; government agencies and police stations; utility companies and pawn shops.

I was assigned the role of the 36-year-old wife in a household where my husband had a $313/week job. We
had a 15-year-old daughter in school, and my disabled father living with us – until moments before the game began, when my husband’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and came to live with us as well.

The simulation itself took exactly one hour to do – four 15-minute “weeks” -- in which we dealt with the known and unexpected challenges of our lives.   Each 15-minute week was divided into eight minutes of work and school, where the employed and the students went to their “assignments,” while the rest of us dealt with paying bills, buying groceries and prescriptions, getting to the bank, getting our food stamps renewed (in my case, while juggling a pair of seniors with limited mobility) and making sure that every member of the family had a supply of the ever-important transportation tickets that had to be cashed in at the start of every transaction at every venue.  Then we had a seven-minute “weekend” to strategize and prioritize the coming week. 

Our family got behind the eight ball immediately when my "husband" (paternalistic driver that he is!) responded to the sudden arrival of his dementia-ridden mother by taking her out the door with him and dropping her at an adult day care which we couldn’t afford on his way to work – despite the fact that we had two other adults at home.  He also left the rest of us without enough transportation tickets to go everywhere that we needed to go in the next eight minutes. 

I went into take-charge mode myself, taking my “father” to the bank with me to cash his disability check; and drawing his ire for agreeing to pay the entire car loan out of the proceeds, instead of trying to negotiate a partial payment.    

By the first “weekend,” we were snapping at each other, even though we didn’t know each other and were only playing a game. 

Of course, the “game” was stacked against us, although some would argue “no less than it is stacked against the poor in real life.”    In the second week I got a summons from the welfare department and after two trips there to collect the necessary documentation, I learned that my father’s disability check was going to reduce our eligibility for food stamps.   Not that I had time to get to the grocery every week anyway.  I learned that my father had a checking account at the bank, but my husband did not – and we never had a week to wait to open one, so had to keep going to the payday loan store to cash paychecks, for an ever-increasing fee.      Almost everywhere we went, the people “playing” the staff made us wait precious seconds while they completed conversations with each other. 

I deal with anxiety in real life, and 35 minutes into this game I was thinking it might be better for my health to just quit.

Our “family” came out rather well.  We never lost a job for being late twice; we weren’t evicted; our teenager got a job during “spring break” and was able to pay most of the cost for the glasses she needed, and we never had to bail her out of juvenile detention.  We missed a payment and got our phone disconnected.   We actually had a second car that we could have sold, if we had the time. 

During an hour-long debriefing session, I didn’t even get a chance to share my observations because so many people were so eager to talk about their experiences.   And I’m not pushy enough.  I’m a line-waiter-inner. 

One of the observations I made of myself – and my entire family of middle-class role-players – was that it never occurred to us to try to bend the rules or even ask for help.   The system has usually worked for me.  Not only did I not lie on my food-stamp paperwork; it certainly didn’t occur to me to rob the pawn shop.  Nor did it occur to any of us to try to barter services with other families.   We had two adults at home, taking turns taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient.   The families around us had disabled family members and pre-teen children.   Finding the time to seek them out and trade services for cash or goods didn’t occur to us.   It did occur to me to try to find a job, but the game didn’t allow the time for that.

The reason for this, and perhaps the central “takeaway” of the whole exercise, was summed up in the often-used phrase “the tyranny of the moment.”   The game is designed, above all else, to illustrate that being working poor is a full-time job for each member of the family.  It is too easy for our society to blame the poor for their condition – to ascribe it to laziness or bad choices.   In this simulation, the choices are made in a framework of urgency.   I didn’t choose to not have a bank account – it was just a daily matter of preventing the electricity from being turned off being more urgent.

I wasn’t able to get a complete roster, but everyone I talked to at this event was associated with a hospital, a government agency, a non-profit, or a church – people who work with the poor on a regular basis, and at least have a need, if not a pre-disposition, to understand their motives.   And again, fifty-three of the sixty participants were women.   I couldn’t help wondering what might have been different if I had participated along with a room full of 55-year-old male bankers and insurance executives.

I also volunteer as a mentor with Starfish Initiative.   Because of our mission – helping disadvantaged youth qualify for college scholarships – one of requirements of being a mentor is to have a college degree.  So we have a good cross-section of educated and successful people, across the political spectrum.  Starfish encourages its mentors to read a book, Ruby Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which discusses the different ways that the poor and the middle class evaluate and value basics such as food and money.  (For instance, whereas the middle class may ask of a meal, “Was it tasty?  Was it healthy?”, the poor are likely to evaluate it in terms of “Did you get enough?”)   Starfish doesn’t promote this book to turn us into socialists, but to help us understand the background of our kids – including the fact that their parents may not be lazy or stupid, but just have different, and understandably different, immediate priorities.

Yes, the simulation is a bit heavy-handed, which could be used as the excuse to dismiss it by someone not predisposed to be sympathetic.   Which might be a good reason for a community like a church – with a range of ages and professions represented – to be a place that demonstrates it.