“Poor people are just lazy.”
“Why won’t they just send their kids to school?”
“We don’t want them to be over-reliant on handouts.”

Is this how we think of those who are poor? Do we really know what it is like to be poor in Singapore?

To offer a keener insight into the psyche and plight of the poor, the Colabs team from the Community Foundation of Singapore (CFS) and National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) recently collaborated with Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) to organise ‘In Their Shoes’, an interactive and experiential workshop on understanding poverty in Singapore.

With participants comprising of donors, private and public sector partners, charities and stakeholders, the workshop aimed to provide a better understanding of what poverty is and inspire deeper conversations about it.

Based on real life family profiles, participants were grouped into ‘families’ and assigned different members within them. As members of these families, participants stepped into their shoes – spending 15 minutes on each ‘week’ to navigate different complex challenges – planning out their finances, seeking assistance, looking for jobs or in the case of children, going to school – all while having to afford their living expenses (which includes transport, utilities and groceries).

Complete with mock EZ link cards, monies and cheques, participants were given 5 minutes to strategise their husbandry for the ‘week’ and 10 minutes to complete different tasks at various stations, which included employment centres, housing authority, social service centres and utilities board among others.

Philanthropist and businessman Govind Bommi was assigned the identity of the matriarch supporting five dependents, some of whom suffer from disabilities. He struggled to navigate the series of challenges – living on a meagre amount to feed a family of seven and toggling with the decision to pull his kids out of school.

Reflecting on his experience, Govind saw that poverty entailed “a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.” The state of living from hand-to-mouth every day, he added, meant that “there was no luxury for us to think things through. Whatever decisions we made, we made to get through that particular day.”

At the end of the exercise, participants regrouped to share their insights through guided discussions facilitated by staff members from CFS and NVPC. Across the different peculiar circumstances particular to individual families, a broad consensus emerged: the pressures that bear upon the decision-making process often makes it difficult to make the ‘right’ choices, if there were an objectively ‘right’ decision to begin with. Poverty then, is not a plight that befalls those with a particular ‘state of mind’, but rather a complex socio-economic condition that mires those in its throes.

The session revealed the unanimity with which participants felt that more could be done. The different perspectives served as a good starting point to reframe our understanding of poverty and more importantly to reconsider our approach in helping to improve lives.