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How a Poverty Simulation Works

Poverty simulations give participants a taste of what it might be like to live in a low-income family. Leaving their real-world identities behind, groups of 40-85 participants assume new roles and life situations for around three hours. They must navigate daily tasks that would be familiar, if not for the limitations of having far fewer resources to draw on.

The Missouri Association for Community Action has designed a poverty simulation kit that includes 26 unique family profiles typical of Americans experiencing poverty. The kit is used by local agencies around the country to bring together government leaders, social service providers, educators, legal system personnel, civic groups and the business community to build a shared framework for understanding poverty.

During four 15-minute "weeks," those assigned adult roles try to maintain their home, feed their family, send children to school, keep their utilities on, make loan payments, pay for daily expenses like transportation, handle unexpected emergencies and figure out how to access local support and resources. Participants playing children clamor for attention, go to school and imagine the trials of poverty from a child's perspective.

Each family receives props like money, food stamps and transportation cards. They also live under certain constraints. If they have a job, they must spend seven out of the 15-minutes in each "week" sitting in the designated "workplace" or risk getting fired. If they don't have a bank account, they have to cash checks (and pay extra fees) at the "Quick Cash" outlet. Failure to pay their mortgage bills means the loan officer may serve them a foreclosure notice. "Luck of the Draw" cards can bestow an unexpected windfall, cause the breakdown of their only car or serve notice of a sudden school closure.

The staff who play the bureaucrats and cashiers are often people who have direct experience living in poverty. They draw from their real-world experiences to portray representatives from the local utility company, mortgage company, grocery store and child care facility, among other agencies. Other staff, such as the "illegal activities" person, commit robbery, buy and sell drugs or food stamps, and entice children into illegal activities. There is even a police officer to roam the room and respond to disputes.

The simulation kit prepared by the Missouri Association for Community Action isn't meant to be comprehensive. Salient issues such as health care, child support enforcement and the foster care system are not addressed for fear of cramming too much into an hour's session. However, local agencies often tailor the simulation to the characteristics of their communities and to participants' needs.

In just one evening of imitation poverty, real emotions build up. "Most people start off confident in their abilities," says Teresa Wilson of Missouri Association for Community Action. "But they often become angry and frustrated, because they feel like they're not being allowed access to resources they usually take for granted. Some ask, 'Why don't I have a debit card in here?' and I have to remind them they don't even have a bank account!"

Afterwards, trained facilitators lead participants and staff in a discussion. Participants reflect on their own ability to cope in a "state of poverty" and examine the issues and emotions raised by the interaction between the "poor" and community agencies. Staff sometimes share personal testimonials about their experiences in poverty.

Facilitators say significant attitude changes can occur during the brief but intense simulations. Many participants report that they gain a better understanding of the obstacles faced by low-income families. "I've worked with teachers who gain a better understanding of how reasons of poverty may cause students' behavioral problems in the classroom," says Wilson.

The experience helps build a shared framework that community members can draw upon to talk about poverty. Sometimes, participants decide to take personal action and generate ideas for working together to better support low-income families as they transition from government assistance to working independence.

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