Bianca Crawford juggles responsibilities and makes decisions daily as president of a Columbia public relations firm.
But Thursday, she found herself with perhaps a bigger challenge — trying to make ends meet, as a 21-year-old college student also struggling to support three younger siblings.
She was one of roughly 100 participants in a poverty simulation event aimed at helping professionals and community organizations better understand the challenges and stresses on the poor.
In South Carolina, 18.9 percent of residents live in poverty, according to 2011 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, among the highest U.S. state poverty rates.
Forrest Alton, chief executive officer of the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, decided to bring the simulation to Columbia after participating in an event in Horry County hosted six months ago by the Waccamaw Community Foundation, which also helped with the West Columbia event. . The Benefit Bank of South Carolina also sponsored the event, held at West Columbia’s Brookland Baptist Church.
“It is important for all of us to gain a deeper understanding and even an appreciation for the realities of the people these agencies pretend to serve,” Alton said.
Thursday’s event placed participants into unfamiliar scenarios, in which they had to leverage every resource at their disposal to pay bills and feed themselves and their families, all under tight financial and time constraints.
Participants were divided into three- or four-person “family units” and were given information about the family’s living situation and resources like money, bus passes and even Social Security cards to help apply for financial assistance and buy groceries.
Crawford, who is president of Red Carpet Communications, was assigned to the Colson family and played the role of a 21-year-old college student trying to stay in school while supporting her teenage siblings, whose father was in jail.
Whistles sounded at the start of each of the four 20-minute periods, representing four weeks in the life of the family.
The kids left for “school,” rows of chairs set up in a corner, while Crawford shuttled between tables representing the grocery store, utility company, health care and other services and businesses.
Over the course of the four sessions, Crawford haggled with low-balling pawn brokers, confronted cheating loan sharks and navigated a maze of misinformation and misguided advice from often short-tempered providers about where to go for help. Working under tight time constraints meant that Crawford had to skip her college classes and choose whether to stand in long lines for assistance for which she might not qualify or fill out time-consuming applications for jobs she might not get.
Her younger siblings, instructed to act like teens, wandered unattended, with one being sent to juvenile detention for stealing a bus pass. Other unforeseen crises, like utilities cutting the electricity, further threatened to knock Crawford off the financial tightrope on which she walked.
“This is crazy!” Crawford said, letting out a good-hearted laugh at feeling overwhelmed by her changing circumstances.
After the event, Thursday’s participants shared that they’d felt stressed, threatened and even hopeless during the simulation, and they brainstormed ways to apply what they had learned to the work they do in the Midlands community.
Crawford said the experience not only challenged her to find ways to help in the community but gave her a new perspective.
“It made me think a lot of the issues in my life are really not that big,” she said.