Nov. 21, 2013
Students experience living in poverty for a day in simulation
A group of Northwest Missouri State University behavioral sciences students recently received a hard dose of reality and an education about the kinds of situations poverty-stricken families face every day.
Northwest psychology instructor Elizabeth Dimmitt worked with Community Services Inc. in Maryville to organize the simulation for her Principles of Counseling students. Dimmitt’s objective was to provide the students with a better understanding of the diverse needs among people living in surrounding communities.
“Many times we look at life only through our own personal experiences, and this simulation gives us a chance to see how other’s experiences can shape thinking and behavior,” Dimmitt said. “People in poverty and their responses are not bad or good, but may just be different than our own. These differences include struggles that have helped shape people both positively and negatively.
“Poverty in and of itself doesn’t determine the quality of the person. People may become survivors or develop major strengths, but it can definitely be a struggle to get to that point. Having more awareness, a better understanding and higher levels of empathy – those are the things we are hoping to gain from this simulation.”
The one-hour simulation was designed to represent one month, with the blow of a whistle every 13 minutes to signify the start of a new week.
Students were grouped into families numbering one to four individuals, not including their children, who were represented by dolls. Each family received a packet with information about the family the group was portraying as well as transportation passes, social service agency cards, identification documents and other items they needed to survive.
Tables manned by community volunteers throughout the room served as resources available in the simulated town. There was a jail, a health care provider, Big Glen’s Pawn Shop and a Quick Cash station where students could purchase the valuable transportation passes they needed to get from place to place. The town also included the Bank of Trust, a utility company, a mortgage company, a public school and daycare, an interfaith center and the Food-A-Rama.
Giving instructions from a podium, Community Services volunteer Norma Erickson reinforced that the simulation was not a game. The situations and statistics the students faced were based on other families’ real experiences.
“Poverty is not a game for the over 46.2 million people living in poverty in the United States,” Erickson told the students. “Your family unit is struggling, but it does not represent the lower end of the poverty spectrum. Many of your families do not, technically speaking, fall below the poverty line. Rather, they typify the average or vast majority of low-income homes.”
As the students spent more time in the simulation, they began to understand some of the hardships and emotions low-income families experience. They became frustrated and irritable when they couldn’t find work. They became desperate in their searches for food and shelter. One week in the simulation was designated as a school holiday, which meant parents had to find alternate care for their children or stay home from work.
Megan Whitman, a senior psychology major from Kansas City, Kan., portrayed a college-educated father who was recently laid off after working 20 years at a company. Whitman’s fictional wife had a full-time job, providing the family’s only income. The family included three children, one of whom was pregnant.
Whitman said the family struggled during the simulation and found it impossible to stay on top of their bills because of other expense – from eyeglasses for one of their children to buying valentines that the children could take to their school. Eventually, the family was evicted from their home because they didn’t pay the mortgage.
"We went two weeks without buying food, and we couldn't stay in the homeless shelter because they were too full,” Whitman said. “It was incredibly stressful and discouraging. It felt like we were drowning in bills, and there was no end in sight.”
Cassie Thomas, a senior psychology major from Kearney, Neb., played a 60-something mother living with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. The grandmother recently had a stroke, which kept her from working. Thus, her contribution to the family’s monthly income was a $300 disability check that was cashed to pay for the family’s transportation expenses.
“I was unable to get a job, so I felt helpless,” Thomas said. “All I could do was send them off to work and school and maybe pick up groceries or pay bills the next week if we had the money.”
Thomas took advantage of her extra time at home by committing to manage the family’s finances.
“I was able to make a ledger of what needed to be paid and what we had the funds for,” Thomas said. “I was then able to communicate with other family members what they could do to help out when they got off work. This kept us from being evicted from our home due to an unpaid mortgage and helped us to make it through the month with decent financial health, although we were cutting it very close.”
This marked the second year Dimmitt has incorporated the simulation into the course, which challenges students to think about diversity and having empathy for others.
“This was a prime opportunity for us to put the students in a productively uncomfortable position and see what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes,” Dimmitt said. “As the simulation goes along, we started to see people make choices that they would not typically make, like stealing or leaving their children behind. They start trying to do whatever it takes to make it work, to make ends meet, to survive. By the end, we have some real ah-ha moments when those light bulbs come on and students say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know it was like this or that it could be like this.’”
Students said they realized the stress placed on families living with low income. Unexpected events can have drastic effects on a family’s income, and they must make difficult decisions to survive. Sometimes that means missing a payment.“I used to think people living in poverty were lazy or abusing the system, but for many families that is not the case at all,” Whitman said. “My character was a college graduate and a loyal worker, but unfortunately lost his job. Nothing he did caused him to lose his job. The simulation taught me to seek out community resources and utilize them.”
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