Four out of five Americans will struggle with economic insecurity during their lives. Sixty percent of Americans will experience poverty for at least a year, and 25 percent for five or more years. Yet, despite this ubiquity, many people often struggle to understand what life in poverty is like.
To combat this ignorance and to build empathy, advocacy organizations have developed a number of ways to mimic the real-life experience of living below the poverty line, such as the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge and Minimum Wage Challenge that both ask participants to cut back in their own lives for a few weeks.
But one has started to take off that gives participants a sense of the full experience of life below the poverty line: the the Missouri Community Action Network’s (CAN) Community Action Poverty Simulation. CAN’s simulation has grown in popularity over the last decade, selling over 1,100 of the $2,150 kits and even spreading overseas in countries such as Australia and South Korea.
During the two- to four-hour simulation, participants in CAN’s program are assigned a new identity — each based on an actual person living in poverty — and are divided into families that have to role play as they try to meet their basic needs at different service and resource tables around the room. Throughout the fifteen-minute “weeks,” participants endure various hardships, such as eviction or losing a job.
“The United States is still a country that blames people for living in poverty, that stigmatizes people living in poverty, that has created social policies that are punitive and that don’t recognize the structural reasons for people living in poverty,” said Diane Elze, the director of the Master of Social Work program at the University of Buffalo, which has included a poverty simulation in its student orientation. The experience “begins to challenge that for them.”
“The United States is still a country that blames people for living in poverty, that stigmatizes people living in poverty.”
The program is based on the Reform Organization of Welfare’s (ROWEL) Welfare Simulation, which was developed in the 1980s. The idea was born when board members who were living in poverty themselves realized, “If only the public could walk a mile in our shoes, they would understand that we can’t make it with things as they are,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, a former executive director of ROWEL.
The goal was to make the simulation as realistic as possible. Each scenario stemmed from real life experiences — landlords who solicited sex in lieu of rent, police who took bribes rather than give a ticket for a broken taillight, landlords who claimed tenants hadn’t paid rent and threatened court action.
In 2002, CAN took over the simulations. At first, it used them as a tool for the staff of community agencies to better understand poverty.
But word spread quickly and outside organizations began to express interest. By 2004, CAN started selling the simulation kits. Groups who purchase them range “from service groups to educators to clergy and congregations, social service providers, city staff, colleges, other community organizers, corporations,” said Heidi Lucas, the outreach manager at the Missouri Community Action Network, adding that the kits are most popular among education institutions.
One group who goes through the simulations are incoming students at the School of Social Work at the University of Buffalo.
“Students begin to engage…in critical thinking about our social welfare policies in this country and the kinds of assumptions about people living in poverty that are embedded in our social welfare policies,” Elze said.
Students typically have very positive responses to the simulation. On a questionnaire distributed after the event, 80 percent of students either agreed or strongly agreed with the statements that “my awareness of those living in poverty have grown,” “I now view the factors associated with poverty differently,” “I am more likely to critically analyze policy related to poverty,” and “the assumptions that I held about people living in poverty were challenged.”
This shift in these students’ perspectives is a common experience. Various studies have found that college students who participate in CAN’s simulation express statistically significant changes in their view of poverty: they have less bias and exhibit greater positive attitudes towards low-income people.
This new in mindset may come, in part, from recognizing the high levels of stress people living below the poverty line experience.
“What I’ve seen happen for students is they get frustrated, their anxiety level gets up, they get angry,” Elze said. “They may be waiting in line for a day or for hours to get services, and then the office closes and they don’t get to see anybody. Or they don’t have enough transportation tickets to go to all the appointments they need to go to that day.”
“It can be a very emotional experience for people. We’ve had people break down and cry during simulations,” Lucas added. “We’ve had people get angry and yell and scream.”
During one debriefing session, a student who used to work in a supermarket began crying. The student expressed shame about the assumptions she had made when SNAP recipients came up to her cash register — that they didn’t work or even try to get a job.
“We’ve had people break down and cry during simulations. We’ve had people get angry and yell and scream.”
It’s not just students who can be changed by the experience. Lucas described a large energy company that uses the simulation for its customer service training.
“When people are calling and saying ‘I can’t pay my bill,’ and someone is sitting and crying on the phone, after a while you hear that over and over and over again, you just stop caring,” Lucas said. “The idea is hopefully to create a little bit of empathy with those customer service representatives.”
“Usually the negative feedback is around that issue where it’s a group of middle class individuals pretending to live in poverty…and people don’t take it seriously or they think it’s a game,” Lucas said.
To work against the potential pitfalls, CAN encourages organizations that run the simulations to include people currently experiencing poverty in the event as workers at the resource stations.
Sometimes during the debriefing period “somebody will stand up and say, ‘Well, this is all well and good, but people don’t actually live like this. This is not real life,’” Lucas said. “If you have some other individuals in the room who have experienced poverty, they can combat that by saying, ‘This is my life’… That really puts a face to an experience.”
Melissa Boteach, the vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, argues that the ideal result of a simulation would be that participants begin to advocate for change. She would hope they seek to “find out more [about poverty], both through direct engagement with people for whom it’s not a simulation, but also research and action in their community, and awareness raising.” (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress.) That way “it’s not a one-off but something that can build momentum for policy change.”
A direct way to produce policy change is to get politicians to participate in the simulation.
In 2014, a poverty simulation came to Capitol Hill. Almost two years later, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) said, “I think about [the simulation] on a regular basis.” Kildee has voted against maintaining work requirements for welfare recipients and supported a higher federal minimum wage.
“It was a reminder of just how hard it is and how hard-working people who live in poverty really are,” Kildee told ThinkProgress. “It’s just having that feeling that no one was listening to me and everything that comes easy was hard.”
“All the things that the poverty simulation put me through was a reminder of how tough it is to be poor,” he said. “And that was a really good lesson.”
“All the things that the poverty simulation put me through was a reminder of how tough it is to be poor.”
Still, Kildee thinks it would help for Americans to interact with real-life poor people. “I also think it would make a difference if they spent time talking to people as human beings,” Kildee said. “Not pre-judge them, actually hear their stories.”
Boteach agrees that listening to people in poverty is paramount to developing effective policy.
Simulations are “not a substitute for having direct stakeholders at the table for discussions on what the policy solution should be,” she said. People living in poverty have to be brought into the process directly. “[We have to] make sure we’re engaging those voices and those experiences.”
Rachel Cain is an intern at ThinkProgress.