Editor's Note: Rachel Hettinger joined The Patterson Foundation as its sixth fellow in June 2022. Moving from the Indianapolis hub of philanthropy, Rachel brings an extensive array of knowledge on philanthropic topics as well as unique experiences.
There’s something to be said about the knowledge gained from lived experiences. One of the most challenging experiences to live through is poverty. Growing up was difficult for me as I was born into poverty. My parents did their best to hide it from us, and for a while I didn’t realize I was poor. However, eventually, I figured it out when all the girls at school were wearing new clothes from Justice, and I was wearing hand-me-downs from the daughter of the woman whose house my mom cleaned. Once in a blue moon, I would get new clothes from the dollar store, and I thought they were the best clothes ever simply because they were new. But the girls at school didn’t think so, and boy, did they let me know it. This is just one of the challenges children in poverty face.
In my life, I have had two lived experiences where I was given the opportunity to experience the adult side of poverty. One incident comes from an overnight in Heifer International’s poverty simulation; the other comes from Manatee County’s half-day poverty simulation. Both experiences were invaluable to me, but there’s something to be said about their juxtaposition.
I experienced Heifer International when I was 17 and in 4-H and was fortunate enough to go to Heifer International’s headquarters with my 4-H group. While there, we were given a tour of their international poverty simulation which represents what poverty looks like in various countries, from Thailand to China to Kenya to Guatemala to the urban slums of the United States. While on the tour, Heifer International staff said something that stuck with me: “There’s twice as much food in the world needed to feed everyone in it, yet hunger and poverty still exist.” Later, we were divided up (unequally) into groups to go live in one of the countries in poverty and spend the night there with whatever supplies were there. Of course, I drew the card of the pregnant mother. This meant a water balloon was strapped to my stomach, and I couldn’t “give birth” until everyone in my family had eaten. If I popped the balloon, my entire family would have to stop what we were doing and sit down to mourn the loss in silence.
As I waddled with my family of nine, including two adults, one playing a toddler and one playing an elderly grandma, to our new home for 24 hours in representational poverty in Thailand, I was not surprised when I saw our supplies. We were given a box with 7 onions, ½ cup of rice, and one pot. That was it. We were allowed to talk with other groups and try to trade, and so that’s what we set out to do.
When I was walking through the simulation, trying to think of how I could get food for my family to eat so I could take off this water balloon, what the staff had said on our tour hit me. If there was twice as much food in the world needed to feed everyone in it, and this poverty simulation was representative of world poverty, then there was enough food in our simulation to feed us all. Yet, our hunger and our poverty still existed.
With this epiphany in mind, I went around pitching to every family in representational poverty that we pick one site and bring all the food and supplies to cook it together. No one believed me. So naturally, my family went hungry and ended up eating partially cooked onions for dinner so I could rid myself of the water balloon. However, the next morning when we all gathered with Heifer International staff, I asked if I was right, and they said yes.
Not only did this spark a passion in me always to be thinking about collective abundance, but it highlighted the reality that no one problem, especially one as significant as poverty, can be solved by just one person. To move the needle, we have to work across sectors together on a shared aspiration.
At 22 years old, I experienced another poverty simulation by the Manatee Community Foundation, the School District of Manatee County, and the Women’s Resource Center. This time it was only a half-day experience, yet it was accelerated to encompass what people in poverty in Manatee County feel like during the time span of a month.
I was given a new identity of a 36-year-old man with a full-time job but was married to an unemployed wife, with a 15-year-old daughter who worked part-time to help the family, and a grumpy father-in-law who had to have medication. This simulation provided instructions that guided our bills, when we could work, and things we had to buy each week, like food.
While I was grateful to have a full-time job in this simulation to support my family, the weeks, represented by 12 minutes, went fast. I had to be at work for seven minutes to illustrate my full-time job, but by the time I “clocked out” and tried to get in line at the quick cash to cash my check, time was up. All I could do for my family was work and bring home a paycheck they would have to cash the following week. I felt useless. I couldn’t help with groceries, picking up prescriptions, or making payments. I had to rely entirely on my family to do everything else that was necessary for us to meet our basic needs.
This brought some pretty crucial components of being an adult with a family in poverty to the surface. When the simulation was over, and everyone was sharing their perspectives, we learned that only two people went to the doctor the whole month. Only a handful of people went to nonprofit services. A majority of people encountered systemic challenges that perpetuated the cycle of poverty.
This highlighted the lack of time adults in poverty have to find out what other resources are out there that could help their family, to have access to quality healthcare, and to have quality time with their families.
Both simulations raised the realities of poverty to the surface meaningfully. What’s unfortunate is in the five years between the two simulations I experienced, the needle has hardly moved on the poverty and hunger crisis. This has left me with some big questions for the philanthropic sector. When are we going to push through the barriers and put cross-sector collaboration at the forefront to move the needle forward through the lens of shared aspirations? When will we realize that those in poverty may not have the resources to discover that we’re here and ready to help?
Now is the time to put trust-based philanthropy, cross-sector collaboration, and meeting people where they are at the forefront of the work we do when it comes to issues as significant as poverty and hunger. We have the capability to convene leaders around a shared aspiration to alleviate poverty now. Time is the non-renewable resource. Clearly, it’s a multi-challenged resource for people in poverty, so how can we expect those in poverty to break the cycle when they don’t even have the time to go to the doctor? We have the time and the resources to think of ways to break the cycle of poverty, and the time to do so is now.