Corporate Employees Walk in the Shoes of the Poor (Andy Telli, Tennessee Register)
They were all white-collar workers for Procter and Gamble, one of the biggest, most successful companies in the country. But after a few hours of pretending to be members of a low-income family struggling to find a place to live or to pay their bills, their frustration and their stress were clear.
After spending the "day" sitting in one corner of the room at their job, they would race across the room to another table where they had to pay their rent or buy a bus pass, only to be greeted with a "Closed" sign.
There wasn't enough time to get everything done, they complained. The businesses and social service agencies that were there to serve these low-income families weren't efficient in meeting the needs of the clients and customers, they argued.
Ray Telford, who spent most of his life living on the streets and is now an advocate for the homeless, told them the frustration they felt as part of a poverty simulation put on by Catholic Charities of Tennessee is all too real.
"It's a struggle," Telford said of a life of on the razor's edge of economic security. "It's a full-time job, and you still won't get everything done."
The P&G employees who participated in the poverty simulation, held at the Catholic Pastoral Center, work with their client Dollar General, whose more than 14,000 deep discount stores sell a variety of P&G household products, including diapers, soap, laundry detergent, dusters and health and beauty products. Among Dollar General's customers, 60 percent have a household income of $35,000 or less, according to Angela Cox, a consumer and market knowledge senior manager in P&G's Nashville office.
"We think so myopically about the sale we're running this week or the products were designing, we rarely think about the broader lives of these people," said Cox, who reached out to Aimee Mayer, advocacy and social concerns coordinator for Catholic Charities, to organize the poverty simulation.
The goal for the P&G employees of participating in the poverty simulation was to improve their business, Cox explained. "It's a good way to understand the families we serve," she said. "Some of our biggest growth opportunities are with those low income, underserved communities."
By better understanding the lives and pressures of their low-income consumers, the company can do a better job of designing products to better meet their needs, Cox said.
But it's also a good way to see how P&G employees can be involved in the community and be a better corporate citizen, Cox said.
It was the second time Catholic Charities has put on the poverty simulation for a company, Mayer said. Typically, the simulations are for parish groups or volunteers and employees of social service agencies, she said.
"It's very different" when Catholic Charities puts on the poverty simulation for a business, Mayer said. "They don't know what they're getting into because they're not self-selecting to do it," she said.
At the end of the simulation, the participants filled out an evaluation form and where asked to describe the experience. Several people called it "stressful," "scary" and "eye-opening." One person wrote, "The process makes me question P&G's pricing strategy," while another said, ""Be an advocate for our consumer."
"I had never been through it," Cox said of the simulation. She found it interesting to watch as her co-workers and colleagues who are calm and level-headed at work, became frustrated and anxious. "It definitely brings out different personalities in people," she said.
For Michelle Lohman, who works in sales in P&G's Nashville office, the business lesson she took from the simulation was to make sure the company is serving all shoppers. "It reinforced the importance that we design products for all shoppers," she said.
But the deeper lesson was more personal, she said. "Sometimes the problems seem so big and intractable you think there's nothing I can do about it. But the simulation helps you realize you can make a difference if you focus on your local community."
Mayer said she hoped that the participants in the simulation will continue to process their experience long after they left the Catholic Pastoral Center, and consider how they might address some of the issues they confronted in the simulation in their corporate policies.
"I would love for them to think about how their choices at the corporate level affect consumers and employees on the ground level," Mayer said. "I would like to see them advocate for legislation on issues that affect the poor, especially transportation and housing."
People with a nice car and reliable transportation to their job, to doctor's appointments, to their children's school, or to the grocery store, are often unaware of how much of an obstacle not having reliable transportation can be, Mayer said.
Mayer noted that Nashville is beginning to consider and debate a new transportation plan, and she hopes people will consider how that transportation plan will affect the poor.
In a broader sense, she said, "I hope they will think about why people do what they do."
Mayer would like to do more poverty simulations for businesses. "You need someone on the inside who decides this is important," she said.
"We don't charge for putting on the simulation but we ask them to make a donation," Mayer said. P&G made an in-kind donation of laundry detergent, diapers, paper towels, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, deodorant and other products. Some of it went to the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville, which is run by Catholic Charities, and some of it was used to fill bags to distribute to the homeless.
To contact Mayer about scheduling a poverty simulation, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-352-3087, ext. 2162.