Community feature: Community advocates teach the 'Cost of Poverty'

Erica Thompson
Norwood “Buzz” Thomas (left) and Robert Caldwell

Much like the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty — declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 — had good intentions. But decades and massive amounts of federal spending later, the U.S. is in the throes of an opioid epidemic and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 39.7 million people were living in poverty as of 2017.

“You have arguably some of the smartest and most well-intended people trying to address poverty,” said Robert Caldwell, founder of, a nonprofit organization working to interrupt the cycle of generational poverty. “The problem is that most of those folks don't have a clue about a life lived in poverty. … As a result, most of the programs and services that we've developed over the years really don't have a chance of being successful. And, in fact, a lot of them actually perpetuate the problem.”

Misconceptions about people's circumstances, experiences and capabilities hinder assistance, Caldwell further explained.

“Add that to the fact that we have professional helping as an industry,” he said. “[There's a] codependent relationship between people who are supposedly being helped … and the people who deliver those programs and services. It's in the best interest — either tacitly or intentionally — of the professional helpers to keep people dependent.”

To help everyone from policy-makers and social workers to healthcare providers and teachers better understand that reality, offers myriad training resources. One example is theCost of Poverty Experience (COPE), developed by Think Tank, Inc. The training simulates one month in the life of a low-income individual or family. The next event takes place 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 16 at Livingston United Methodist Church.

“It is intended, in that short period of time, to have people have this visceral experience of the challenges of trying to navigate a life lived in poverty,” Caldwell said.

During the simulation, participants are assigned different circumstances based on experiences of real-life families. During four 15-minute “weeks,” they must complete everyday tasks (accessing transportation, getting to work, etc.).

Norwood “Buzz” Thomas, a COPE-contracted trainer, said participants quickly become frantic. “They start to be visited with the tyranny of time,” he said. “About the third week, we say, ‘We notice that there's like 10 of you that haven't bought groceries.'”

Thomas relayed the story of a doctor who went through the simulation. “After the first 15-minute period, he had stood in line for a bus pass and didn't get it,” Thomas said. “So he couldn't go to work. So he lost his job. He threw up his hands and said, ‘I can't do this.' And someone pointed out to him, ‘You can do this for 15 minutes. Your patients do this every day.'”

“There's the perception that poor people are helpless,” Thomas continued. “But it takes an enormous amount of intelligence and resourcefulness just to get through the day.”

Caldwell hopes participants will be motivated to make changes in their approach to helping people in poverty. He has already seen results with schools changing the demands placed on parents. One school even installed washing machines so families could do laundry during parent-teacher conferences.

Caldwell would also like to see a change in the often short-sighted approach to tackling poverty. He pointed to services like time-restrictive programs such as parenting classes that, while helpful, do not provide lasting solutions.

“Nobody thinks that this single mom is going to be a great parent after six weeks of a class that they took for one hour a day,” he said. “You have to immerse people in relationships. … It might take six years. So when you start to think that way, now you can develop a program that's more relational, not linear.”

But it begins with an understanding of the magnitude of the problem, Caldwell said.

“Anybody who was born into generational poverty today did not choose that,” he said. “You were born in a set of circumstances you had no control over. And so was your mom. And so was your grandmother. … They were forced to figure out how to survive in those circumstances. And most folks do the best they can.”

10 a.m. Saturday, March 16

200 E. Livingston Ave., German Village

Livingston United Methodist Church