Poverty simulation makes it real

By the time I blew the whistle to begin Week Two, our group of well-dressed men and women had at least learned one lesson. At my shrill blast, they leapt up from their seats and raced to the welfare office. Within 30 seconds, that line was out the door. Those who hadn’t run either settled in for a long wait or turned away to try their luck elsewhere.

I enjoyed a privileged perch as co-facilitator of Rhode Island’s ?first Poverty Simulation, an exercise created by Missouri Community Action and now being used all over the United States to help the more fortunate understand what the phrase “not making ends meet” really means. During our Rhode Island simulation, held on Sept. 23, 50-odd participants played specific roles as adult or child members of 23 low- and moderate-income households. The incomes and situations are based on reality – these families are mostly the working poor, not the most destitute.

Over four 15-minute weeks each household does its best to?secure income, cash checks, buy food, pay rent, get the kids to school and transact other essential business at 12 sites, including an employer, a bank, a welfare office and a pawn shop. Like real life, the simulation includes bad luck, crime and difficult decisions between, for instance, feeding the kids or paying the rent.

During the short simulated month, I watched our little community unravel. The rules are complicated and obscure. Lines are long. Time is short. A thief snatches unwatched goods and cash and merchants cheat customers. Service providers harden their hearts: everyone has a hard luck story. By week four, our school was empty and our jail was full. This report from ABC 6?gives you some idea of how it went.

After the final whistle, we talked about what had happened. Nearly every family ended worse than they’d begun; only one claimed to have fed their children and paid all their bills each week. Many of our participants work in organizations helping low-income families, yet even they reported new insights into how poverty feels: stressful, depressing, disempowering. Others noted the importance of small gestures of kindness. All of us marveled at how serious and intense this artificial experience became to participants.

“As a person who feels like she’s pretty in-touch with these issues, I had so many learnings in the short time I was there,” wrote Kathy O’Donnell, Director of Public Affairs at Citizens Bank later in the day.? “It was so important to walk in another’s shoes, to see their perspective when faced with impossible choices when at the end of the day, they just want a better life for their children…. It was a humbling and moving experience.”

Kathy also hoped that public officials might participate in future simulations, and our team would also hope for many more business leaders, too. Our first group of participants largely self-selected from those already persuaded that poverty is a problem we can solve. Next time (if there is one) we want a lot more participation from the General Assembly and Chamber of Commerce.

I often help organizations serving lower-income families make the case for their programs. To me, the case for helping is a matter of community self-interest as well as morality. But for many of my middle-class peers, the notion that lots of people in our community simply cannot earn enough to pay the minimum costs of food, shelter and health care, no matter how hard they work, just makes no sense in light of their own life experiences. To them, it seems the poor have chosen poverty. Help is not just undeserved, but also futile.

The poverty simulation doesn’t lead straight to solutions. But in about two hours it does lead to understanding on a level no words or data can reach. Poverty is complicated, poverty hurts us as individuals and poverty perpetuates itself. I know that experience is the best teacher. In Savannah, Georgia, the Poverty Simulation is a quarterly event that recruits dozens of business volunteers to task forces on poverty-related issues like housing and transit through Step Up Savannah, a community coalition committed to solving problems of persistent poverty in their community.

Our Poverty Simulation was organized by Social Venture Partners of Rhode Island with help from 11 volunteers like me from the 2008 Delta II class of Leadership Rhode Island and the critical coaching and on-site guidance of Paula Consolini of Williams College, who also lent us the Poverty Simulation kit. Exchange City, an indoor, life-size mini-community where school classes learn about real-life economics and civics, made a perfect venue for our program.


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