Jun 16, 2023 2 min read

Poverty Simulation

Image of group participating in Poverty simulation. Signs hanging from back of chair.

I open the envelope and read the description of my role for the afternoon.

I am a young single mother with three young children and an elderly and disabled father living with us. I’m the only one in my family working and do not currently have a bank account. Per the instruction sheet, I must use the small collection of tokens provided for transportation whenever I go anywhere - to the grocery store, the drugstore, or the local check cashing office. My three children are young enough that they must always be supervised, or I am reminded that I risk being reported and having my children taken from me.

As the afternoon progresses through round after round of the simulation and envelope after challenging envelope, my tradeoffs become more and more difficult. Finding a way to balance competing needs of work, school for the children, and family needs, all with no regard to my own needs, requires every bit of creativity we can muster. My young children should not have to worry over the challenges of survival, but we are a team, and survival requires all of us to pull together, and a wrong step by any one of us can send the game spinning out of control.

At some point in the afternoon, I am nearly broken, and things have become virtually impossible. My heart is racing; I’m sweating and feeling near panic. I realize I don’t have enough cash to pay our rent and purchase my father’s medicine. One child has been suspended and taken by juvenile justice for being involved in a disruption at school. I have one last transportation token to go and attempt to extricate him from the justice system, but no transportation tokens to use for our return trip. To even try this, I will have to leave the two smallest ones at home with my father, who is in no shape to care for the children. I was more than grateful when the facilitator blew the whistle bringing my role in the poverty simulation to an end.

Beyond Stereotypes

Sometimes, we may have trouble seeing and relating to our neighbors’ lived experiences. Stereotypes and social messaging can be so strong that we cannot suspend judgment and cynicism enough to understand and recognize the challenges many face, even those close to us. We do not understand how barriers, scarcity, and daily struggles can alter even our own decision-making and priorities. One way to achieve a deeper level of understanding and awareness is through participating in simulations. Whenever I engage in one of these simulation sessions, I’m surprised by how quickly we all step into our new roles and begin to feel and behave in ways we think we might never do. Through these experiences, we have a small moment to better empathize with our neighbors and move beyond stereotypes.

Words of Caution

When well-designed and well-facilitated, the ah-ha moments keep coming throughout these kinds of sessions. Organizations across the country are skilled at leading poverty simulations, simulations of community re-entry experiences for those returning from prison, and other simulation techniques such as SIMSOC (simulated society). Because of their potential for harm or to act as triggers for some, simulations should always be optional for participants as well as carefully designed, tested, and facilitated. Still, they offer powerful learning opportunities.

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to The Inclusive Community.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.