UCA Student Poverty Simulation: A New Perspective

Featured on the CCED blog is our new intern for spring 2018 Brittany Lutz, a Master of Community and Economic Development student! Brittany participated in the UCA Student Poverty Simulation our team hosted on February 1 in McCastlain Ballroom on UCA’s campus. Brittany shared her experience as follows:

On Thursday, February 1st UCA’s Center for Community and Economic Development held Living on the Edge: A Poverty Simulation open to students who wanted to engage in a first-hand experience of what it is like to have to live in the daily system of poverty. The program was set up so each student was either a member of a family or a single adult, with certain circumstances that they had to overcome. There were about 25 volunteers, and around 50 students that participated, which made for around 15 family groups. Each family was given a sheet of paper that outlined the duties and roles of each member as well as all of the situational aspects of their lives. These aspects began with any governmental assistance such as food stamps and TANF benefits, and went on to list any job positions, earnings, housing and transportation resources, and school and college. For example, some families had incarcerated members, some had disabled members, and some had unemployed heads of households.

The simulation was divided into four fifteen minute “weeks” and four five minute “weekends.” There were numerous community services available around the room including social services, a homeless shelter, a childcare service, a food bank and grocer, a pawn shop, an inter-faith service, a community action group, both a juvenile and an adult detention center, a public school and college, the rent and mortgage center, bank, utilities office, and a hospital which also acted as the general employer. The simulation began as an entire group with about fifteen minutes of training from the supervisor, Monieca West with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, where she gave instructions and explained each document that the participants had received. The families then had about ten minutes of preparation amongst themselves, where conversations of budgets and strategies could be heard.

There were many obstacles and rules that UCA students had to endure, such as having to pay for each trip they take in transportation passes (which had to be purchased from the bank). These passes ended up leaving a heavy burden upon the wallets of some of the families. Services were closed on the weekends. Working individuals could also not be more than five real-time minutes late to work, otherwise they would not be paid. Children could also not be left at home without supervision, or else they would be put in the juvenile detention center. There was also a thief who was allowed to walk around and steal from participants. Monieca also acted as a God character, randomly handing out ‘green cards,’ which were a laminated form of stress that illustrated different scenarios that negatively affected your family’s situation, such as being robbed or arrested.

After the last week had ended, there was a debriefing where all of the participants sat in a seminar-style circle and talked about the experience and feelings about the poverty simulation. Monieca went around the circle, asking questions and facilitating the discussion. Some students came forward to speak about their family’s story and experiences. One girl played the guardian of her grandchildren because her daughter was in jail, but the problem was that she was disabled so she could not work. While she received social service benefits, it was still hard to make ends meet and keep all of the kids in school. Another girl came forward and spoke about how she had to basically drop out of college to take care of her baby as well as many other family affairs. Another girl noted how the school system was flawed, which reminded us about the declining public school system that we have in many places in this country. A lot of students brought up how many houses got evicted. There were probably only two or three left by the end of the simulation. One student spoke about how with careful planning, he was able to keep his house, but his family had to go hungry for two weeks. As a nutrition major he was well aware that there is a difference between food and nutrition, and he was not sure to what degree his family was getting the right nutrition they needed even when they did finally get food.

After we talked about our families, we then moved on to talking about our feelings and observations. There were heavy emotions in the room by this time. A lot of health, education, psychology, and communications majors spoke up and explained how they will use this experience to accommodate and communicate with people from a background of poverty in their future careers, because no one really knows what people are dealing with at home. Monieca then shared a few enlightening words with us when she said that to help those who are less fortunate than us, one does not always have to donate large sums of money and volunteer all of their time, but sometimes all it takes is a conversation and a little compassion, because relationships are a currency in society. It is easy to be an ally, and it is something that we should all realize. It is a mantra that people should always try to live their lives by.

This simulation teaches people that those in poverty are not in that position because they do not work hard enough. Nobody in their right mind would wish that kind of stress and suffering on themselves. So often we ignore the cries of help coming from those in poverty and dismiss them as lazy and/or entitled. If we actually stop to think about what it would be like to live like that day after day, feel what it feels like to not have any money, to be unsure if your family will be able to eat this week, or have a place to sleep tonight, then perhaps things would change. If people would put themselves in the shoes of someone in poverty, then maybe they would have a little more compassion for them. I challenge all of us to take part in this simulation, or better yet, live in poverty for a month, and see how you feel afterwards.

View photos of the UCA Student Poverty Simulation on our Facebook page.