A group of area educators experienced a hint of life in poverty earlier this month. John Girodat and Noalee McDonald-Augustine, Smoky Hill Education Service Center Consultants – along with the assistance of about 15 community volunteers – guided a poverty simulation for more than 50 participants with USD 298 Lincoln.
“You’re playing a role, but it’s not really a game,” Girodat said. “This simulation will offer a glimpse of what it is like to live in poverty.”
The curriculum from Community Action Partnership in Missouri has participants take on roles within families either under or near to the poverty line. With each 15 minutes simulating one week of real time, participants are tasked with feeding everyone in the family, getting to work or school, paying utilities and other bills, meeting everyone’s health needs, avoiding pressure to participate in illegal activities, and providing adequate housing for everyone in the family.
For some, it proved extremely difficult, even with community volunteers simulating social services and faith-based initiatives. Only five families out of more than 20 managed to pay for food during the first week and some were forced to jail because of bad luck, rather than any action of their own.
With the poorest families having to scramble just to put food on the table, many resources went almost completely unused. For example, both the Community Healthcare and the Community Action Agency stations only received one visitor the entire month. Meanwhile, predatory institutions such as “Quik Cash” – offering payday loans – had huge lines, just because the families with the largest need had to have access to funds right away.
Still, there were a few bright spots. Several participants playing the role of youth benefitted from succeeding at school. Also, four families began the simulation in a homeless shelter, but half of them secured independent housing by the end of the “month.” McDonald-Augustine said recognizing these successes is also important within the simulation.
“There is hope,” she said. “As difficult as these situations are, poverty doesn’t have to be a life sentence. With community support and safety nets, change is possible.”
During debriefing following the simulation, Girodat asked participants to describe their feelings with a single word. Typical descriptions included: overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless and desperate – among others. Even those who met all their family goals recognized that they were “blessed” and “fortunate.”
With this feedback, Girodat noted that a common experience of those living under or near the poverty line is that planning for the future can be nearly impossible.
“Living in poverty, you’re living in that moment and the moment before,” he said.
Girodat encouraged the educators to go beyond hand-wringing for those living in poverty and to actually place themselves in others’ shoes and implement practical solutions.
“It’s not about feeling bad for people in this situation,” Girodat said. “They don’t need your sympathy. Empathy is what we need.”
The Community Action Partnership Poverty Simulation is a new service under development at SHESC. For more details about the simulation and how to bring it to a school district or non-profit organization, contact John Girodat at [email protected] or Noalee McDonald-Augustine at [email protected].