The Cost of Poverty

Rebecca Walls wants you to know what poverty feels like. Several times each month, Walls gathers a few dozen willing participants for a role-playing exercise aptly named COPE: the Cost of Poverty Experience. If you go, you'll be assigned a temporary identity complete with occupation, level of education, relationships, employment status, personality type and dozens of other tidbits.

In the span of two and a half hours, you'll "live" a month under that new identity, buying groceries, going to work, picking up the kids from school. You'll also encounter obstacles and frustrations that are less common outside of low-income environments: predatory lenders, uninsured illness and unsafe living conditions.

COPE is a program of Unite Greater Dallas, a nonprofit that seeks to connect houses of worship with the needs of the city. Walls founded Unite in 2010. She brought COPE to the program in 2016.

"Our heart is to see the church step into these places where our neighbors really need us," Walls said. "I see schools all the time where they have zero partners. Zero volunteers."

COPE takes place in a large, empty room at Mockingbird Community Church on Ellsworth Avenue near Mockingbird Station. The room is surrounded by smaller rooms that have been converted into common community locales: school, church, homeless shelter, health clinic, pawnshop, corner store, bank, courthouse and gas station. Earlier this month I visited this imaginary community myself. On a short tour before the simulation, Walls confided a few secrets to COPE-ing. Participants tend to take transportation for granted and they spend too much time at the bank. "Middle-class people think the bank will solve all their problems," Walls said.