For the past few years, I have been doing a very special project with the eighth graders at our school. It covers curriculum in religion, social studies, language arts, science, and math – and it even uses technology throughout the lesson. For those in non-parochial schools, the religious aspect can be left out of it and replaced with character education or simple compassion and human dignity.
The Poverty Project ©2012 is a lesson I created with partial material from Catholic Campaign for Human Development – Poverty USA website
Day One. We start the discussion on poverty. What are common stereotypes of people living in poverty? What do you think of people living in poverty? Are they lazy, drug-addicted, or drunks? Why can’t they “just get a job?” It is here that I tell them a true story: I was in Santa Cruz with my family. We went to the popular boardwalk, and we were getting ready to have dinner on the wharf. It was a breezy summer day, but we hadn’t planned on the breeze being so chilly. I marched the kids and my husband into a store and put down $150 for brand new hoodies for the whole family. Outside of our favorite restaurant, a stinky old bum sat with a cup asking for money. Looking in his cup, he had several $20 bills, and I said, “He’s got more money than I do!”
My husband pulled me aside, and he looked very concerned. “I’m going to buy you lunch,” he told the disheveled man.
“WHAT?! Are you crazy?!?!” I shrieked, “He’s got at least $200 in there. He’s got bank!”
My husband’s face grew stern, and he looked at me embarrassingly. “Where do you think he’s going to put that money? Can you see him at the bank? Where is this guy going to stay tonight? Will you invite him into our home? It’s the weekend right now, but come Monday, he won’t have $200 in his cup… he’ll be lucky to get $5 because all of the tourists will have gone away. Where is your compassion? He is a human being. What if he was Jesus in disguise? What if THIS was YOUR test on earth?”
Tears filled my eyes, and I felt instantly ashamed of my behavior. The truth is, this homeless man would probably get mugged that night because beatings and murders of homeless people were on the rise. He definitely did not have the luxury of spending $150 on stupid Beach Boardwalk sweatshirts to keep him warm, but if he decided to drop all his money on that, would they even let him into the store?? He smelled of sweat, dirt, and urine – no way. Where would he eat tonight? Where was his family? How did he get here? He didn’t deserve my insults. He deserved dignity – he is a human, created equal, created for a reason… Maybe it was to teach me this lesson?
The students are now intrigued by this time. They are full of questions about what happened next. They are captivated and engaged… What better way to start our lesson together?
“Imagine this: You are now 25 years old.” I announce. They usually cheer and high-five each other, but I always have to spoil their fun. I tell them that they are married, have two children (an 8-year-old and an 18-month-old), and they only have an 8th grade education. They had to drop out of high school during their freshman year because their families were stuck in the cycle of poverty.
The First Assignment. The students must find a full-time, minimum wage job in Alameda County. They have to remember that the job must not have education requirements because they only have somewhat successfully passed 8th grade coursework. Jobs are first-come, first-hired. Students look at newspapers, Craigslist, and other sources and send me the job through Google Docs (thank you, date/time stamp). I type in the comment stream and on the document itself to tell them whether or not they were hired and give them the next steps:
- They must find a job for their pseudo-spouse – also minimum wage, unskilled labor.
- They need to figure out what hours they will work during the week.
- They need to figure out if they will be using daycare for the 18-month-old and 8-year-old (if the 8-year-old is not in school at those hours).
- They need to find transportation. (If they choose a car, it must be insured AND they need to buy it or find a payment plan they can afford.)
- They must have medical and dental insurance on the family.
- They need to find a 2-bedroom apartment (just like the jobs, first-come; first-served)
- They have no other family or friends that can help them.
- Only legal actions may be taken (i.e., no under-the-table jobs, no abandoning your children).
The Budget. A couple of weeks into this, after everyone has jobs and housing, I start them on a budget process. I have our school bookkeeper come in and tell them about what taxes and fees will come out of their paychecks. She provides a handout that has all of the deductions, and she talks about what each tax and fee is – including the big healthcare costs for dependents. The students then use Google Spreadsheet to come up with the formulas to create their budgets. I give them set pricing for electricity, gas, water, and garbage. We estimate how much money they can spend on groceries. I also warn them that most of them will end up in debt by a couple hundred dollars – just for the week, and it will get worse with time. By now, they’re usually whining that this work is difficult, and they’re freaking out about how to put food on the table. My answer: Millions of people struggle with this daily. Welcome to poverty.
Food. One lesson is spent making a food list/budget. We bring in supermarket ads, and we use online shopping ads. We figure out a typical breakfast and price each serving. We get snacks for the kids, figure out lunch and dinner, and some brave ones will try to get a dessert in there as well. All the servings are priced, and we figure out what we’ll pay each day for food. That’s when we look at what food we chose and how unhealthy it is. They start to ponder links to childhood obesity and poverty…
Reflect Often. We have reflection time after each major portion, and we discuss the issues that we encounter. Some examples: There are not enough jobs that are available for low-skilled and unskilled workers. Rent is outrageous in the Bay Area. The places they can afford to live can be scary and in dangerous neighborhoods. We talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy, and how kids who are hungry or worried cannot even start to climb the ladder of success at school. Violence in the neighborhood (and at home) can make it near impossible to concentrate at school. We talk about water and how third world countries don’t have water fountains/faucets with free, clean water. We talk about the federal poverty income limitations, and how hard it would be to make ends meet on even less money than they’ve “earned” in this project. We discuss issues that go along with being in poverty (i.e., correlation of violence and poverty).
The Movie. After “living” in poverty for several weeks, we watch the movie The Human Experience by Grassroots Films. I saw this movie in its rough-cut version when it toured to a local theater in 2008. When it came to DVD in 2010, it became part of my project. The students are usually astounded when they see the lack of dignity that people living in poverty experience daily. They see pain, suffering, and fear. For at least a day, the students are silent for the rest of the day because this movie changes them, keeps them thinking… it makes them want to change the world…
Legislation. For the next part of the project, they are no longer poverty-stricken young adults, trying to make ends meet. They have become government officials, legislators that are going to write laws and bills that change or end poverty as we know it. The students must write it with definitions and limitations all spelled out, so loopholes aren’t created – critical thinking at its finest. Some past pseudo-legislation done by students included a bus that picks up homeless and needy and takes them to a plot of land purchased by private funds. They create a mini-community with self-sustaining farms, and they learn job skills. They are housed, fed, and educated as this village comes together to help each other. Another idea was to create an after-school program that allows impoverished kids to have a safe haven to do homework, eat a healthy meal, and get school supplies and clothing, all funded by local merchants and large grocery stores. I tell my students my unbreakable rule of creating legislation: Your legislation cannot give a person a fish to eat for one day (charity). Your legislation must give a person the education and skills to eat for the rest of his or her life (social justice).
Lots of Writing. They work on legislative writing skills – collaborating with two to three other senators in their group to create a bill that could actually get some attention from local government. The students write persuasive letters to convince others to support their proposals. They work on presentation skills, so they can convince the other senators to help vote it into law. They gather signatures from adults in the real world that would be affected by such legislation (i.e., teachers, doctors, the mayor, nurses, charities). They learn how to write letters to the media to spread the word about ending poverty and promoting dignity of the human person.
Presentations. As the final assignment of the project, the students dress up in their finest business attire and present the legislation to their classmates, other teachers, and the Principal. The students use Prezi, Google Presentation, Glogster, and other online applications to collaborate with their classmates on the final project. During the final presentations, the teachers and fellow students ask tough questions about the loopholes in their bills. (For example, if you tax the manufacturers of processed foods to fund healthier food items for the poor, are you still hurting the poor who have no time to make healthy meals?) We debate the bills, and finally, we vote on each.
Final Reflection. The students have one final reflection after all is said and done. They give me ideas for the next class that will do the project, they offer ways to improve and things to consider for the future, and most of all they tell me what they learned: All humans should be treated with compassion, respect, and dignity. Often, parents will come to me and tell me that they love what this project teaches their kids. One parent shared with me that at Halloween, her son decided to skip having a costume. He thought that spending $50 on a costume was ridiculous, and he thanked his mom for all her work and effort and for sending him to a good school. Another parent told me their daughter asked her if she could have ten dollars from her allowance so she could buy food for a person who was begging for money outside of the supermarket. After the mom tried talking her out of it, the girl told her mom, “Mom, what if that’s Jesus in disguise?” You can’t argue with that, now can you?