Scott Criqui opened a “Poverty Simulation” workshop Thursday in Lawrence with a personal story that showed the connections between health and financial struggle.
Criqui, a 35-year-old human resources specialist who lives in Lawrence, said his parents were solidly middle class when they married.
Then they started having children. Four died in childbirth and two others were born with developmental disabilities. The other was Criqui.
The family’s medical bills piled up. His mom had to stay home to care for his two brothers. Then his father’s manufacturing job was sent overseas, and the family’s health insurance went with it.
By the time his uninsured father, a smoker, finally got his lung cancer diagnosed it was too late to treat it. He died when Criqui was 12.
Criqui said his mother hid it well, but they were poor.
“It can happen to any of us,” Criqui told a crowd of about 200 participants and volunteers who gathered at the Lawrence Free Methodist Church for the workshop. “Our income can go down. We can have a disability, get an illness or a health concern.”
The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department co-hosted the workshop with four other organizations.
Dan Partridge, the department’s director, said poverty and the chronic stress it causes are intertwined with public health.
“Poverty’s a big driver of health,” Partridge said. “It’s really the most important driver of health. If we can reduce the toxic effects of poverty, we can improve health.”
Thursday’s workshop was intended to put participants in stressful situations and challenge them to navigate the everyday world with suddenly limited resources.
Various stations offered banking, social services, health care and public education. But there also was a payday loan station and a pawn shop. Moving between stations required $1 “transportation cards.”
Participants morphed into families on tight budgets that were at the whim of “Good News” cards that offered unexpected windfalls like utility rebates or “Bad News” cards that imposed unforeseen expenses like flat tires.
Criqui, the workshop’s facilitator, urged participants to take it seriously.
“It’s definitely not a game,” Criqui said, “and the family situations are real.”
Early in the simulation, the line for the pawn shop was long, as families hocked electronics and jewelry to make ends meet.
The lines for social services were comparatively short.
Meredith Richey, a Perry resident, was assigned the role of Betty Boling, a 39-year-old mother of three. As Boling, she was in line to pawn a ring to help put food on the table after her family was robbed.
Richey said her strategy in the simulation was to exhaust her family’s existing assets before heading to the social services table. But within minutes of pawning the ring, a volunteer playing the role of her mortgage lender came by seeking a $650 monthly payment.
Richey, a Republican challenging Democratic Sen. Marci Francisco of Lawrence in the November legislative election, said she wants to learn more about the policies that touch low-income Kansans.
“Poverty is one of my greatest concerns,” Richey said.
Criqui said the residents of Lawrence supported his family in its time of need, and his mother’s access to state-level social services helped him keep the period of poverty in his life from becoming cyclical.
“I’m very grateful for that safety net,” Criqui said.
He said policy changes in the decades since then have been a mixed bag.
Anti-tobacco programs including the statewide ban on smoking in public buildings mark an improvement that would have benefited his parents, who both ultimately died of tobacco-related illnesses.
And Criqui said society now has better programs for integrating people with disabilities like his brothers.
But Criqui, who in the past was asked to be caucus chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, said policy changes spearheaded by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback that limit access to welfare programs represent steps backward.
Those policies, intended to push those receiving government assistance into the job market, are now being pushed at the national level by House Speaker Paul Ryan, a former Brownback aide.