May 1, 2017

Simulation aims to make visceral connection between poverty, stress

On Saturday, the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and Piedmont Court Appointed Child Advocates hosted a simulation to give participants a taste of what people living in poverty go through every day.

The Community Action Poverty Simulation was held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at UVa’s Slaughter Recreation Center.

The immersive exercise is designed to show the struggles of living at or below the poverty line, explained Piedmont CASA President Alicia Lenahan.

“It is a powerful learning experience, and we think that it makes people take pause, so they are not as quick to judge — and they are certainly not inclined to subscribe to the idea that people are poor because they’re not trying hard enough,” she said.

Participants were given random family roles for the exercise and then took a pre-simulation survey to determine their perceptions of poverty, Lenahan said. The participants then went to their families, represented by groups of chairs, within their larger community, represented by the room.

After they were given their back stories and a random amount of resources, the participants “lived through” four weeks in poverty. Each week lasted about 15 minutes, and during that time, their main goals were to keep a roof over their heads and pay all of their bills.

“Depending on the resources you start with, you may already be really struggling,” Lenahan said.

Unexpected challenges also arise, such as a pipe bursting or a child needing $5 for a school trip. Such unexpected costs can be panic-inducing, Lenahan said.

Around the room various tables represented community resources, such as employers, a bank, a rent collector, utilities, law enforcement, interfaith services, a community action center, a health center, a supermarket, a pawn shop and a payday lender. To get to those places, participants had to use transportation tickets, which represented time and effort, as well as money.

“People say, ‘I’m just going to walk, so I don’t need one of those,’” Lenahan said. “Well, if you’re walking, you’re investing your time, your energy and your shoe leather. It just illustrates that getting from point A to point B can be a real challenge, particularly if you live in a community that doesn’t have a whole lot of options in terms of public transportation.”

After adding up all the transportation challenges and bills, it can be confusing and feel impossible to pay for all the basics — which the point, Lenahan said. Now in their third year of hosting the simulation, Lenahan said that participants often forget to eat or pay rent.

“At the end, when we’re talking to the resource volunteers, we’ll ask the supermarket how many people came and bought food,” Lenahan said. “Very few people will have done that. Because if you have very limited resources, you’re deciding how to divvy things up — you just may not be shopping for food.”

“You can tell how many people ended up homeless because, if they are evicted, their chairs are turned over,” she added. “So you can tell how well people did by what the room looks like at the end.”

The group finished with a post-simulation survey to find out what they learned from the exercise.

In Charlottesville, the poverty rate is about 26 percent — 29 percent for children — and Lenahan said financial insecurity changes the brain’s decision making chemistry and narrows a person’s focus to the day-to-day.

In times of scarcity, parents have to use more energy and more brainpower making tough decisions.

“It’s important to know that poverty in and of itself is not abusive or neglectful,” said Lenahan. “We can all think of people who grew up with very limited resources, who were nurtured and encouraged and loved and thrived.”

“But it’s a powerful stressor.”

Between 50 and 60 people participated in the event.

Jeanine Braithwaite, a professor of public policy at the Batten School, hopes the exercise will help people develop empathy and understand what it’s like to live in poverty.

“Poverty is scarcity of money, time and mental bandwidth,” she said. “People think poor people make bad decisions because they have a bad character. But, if stressed, you can actually do things like forget to pay rent or make a mistake.”

“It’s a very powerful insight,” she said. “I’d like to see more policy makers go through the simulation to inform them in their policy decisions.”

As a research university, Braithwaite said the school also will look at the participants’ surveys to look at the psychological impact of poverty. The exercise gave insight into how people make decisions, and what sacrifices people make while under the stress of financial insecurity.

“It’s an eye-opener for students and it gets their empathy going,” Braithwaite said. “I think this is very important for people to understand. We’re all about developing moral leaders.”


This article was written by Lauren Berg of the Daily Progress, and the original version can be accessed here

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