Over twelve percent of Pennsylvanians live in poverty, and more than one in four families is considered “working poor.” In Philadelphia, 25.9% of individuals live below the poverty line, including two-thirds of single mothers.
As far as colleges and universities go, statistics like this may seem to be the purview of those majoring in social work, economics, urban education, and related fields.
But at Cairn, for the past two years, it’s the future youth pastors raising awareness on campus and in the community about poverty levels in Bucks County.
In collaboration with the Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC), youth and family ministry majors plan and host a poverty simulation as part of their Organization and Administration in Youth and Family Ministry class.
Why youth and family ministry? On a practical level, says Professor Matt McAlack, “all [of my youth and family ministry students] will need to deal with poverty on some level.” According to the Working Poor Families Project, 35.1% percent of Pennsylvania’s children and youth live in low-income working families.
“In many churches,” McAlack further explains, “students and their pastors serve as a vehicle to connect well-off members of the congregation with the poor,” whether through mission trips abroad or local outreach. “They are the leaders of today and tomorrow, and they can serve as that conduit.”
During Cairn’s three-hour event, participants are assigned roles in “families.” Family situations are based on real cases handled by the BCOC, which has served over 3,500 households in Bucks County. These families must “survive” for four 15-minute sessions, each representing one week in the life of a low-income family.
The task set by the BCOC representative seemed simple: “Your family’s goal is to keep your home secure, feed your family on a regular basis, keep your utilities on, make necessary loan payments, pay for miscellaneous expenses (like diapers and kids’ extracurricular activities), and deal with life situations as they happen.”
But in the experience of Eric Blacksten, a sophomore youth and family ministry major, it’s not that easy: “I’m playing a disabled father-in-law living with my daughter, her husband, and her teenage kid. I just had a partial stroke and moved in, so my daughter’s out looking for a job now.”
Just minutes into the simulation, he confessed, “I don’t think we’re going to make it through the first week.”
In the end, the family did manage to avoid eviction, pay the utilities, and feed their family regularly three weeks out of four. But Eric, who grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, still observed some concerning trends:
“At the end, they asked us if we worked together with any of the families around us–and no one had. In some places without formal assistance structures, poor families pool their resources to make sure that everyone has enough. But here, that kind of relationship support system just didn’t exist… Even within our families, the relationships weren’t strong. We were barely ever together; our mindset was just like, ‘We’ve got to get this done. We’ve got to get that done.’ The system’s not designed for ease of use. The stress of it… it’s a different side of poverty.”
This annual event is open to all, including area churches and those in the local community. If you are interested in receiving information about next year’s event, contact Youth and Family Ministry program director, Matt McAlack, at firstname.lastname@example.org.