Batten's Poverty Simulation Encourages Empathy

Last Saturday, Oct. 21, as many hit snooze on the alarm, students gathered at the University’s Slaughter Recreation Center to experience what it might be like to live in poverty. Not your typical Saturday exercise class, the Poverty Simulation, organized and curated by Batten Professor of Public Policy Jeanine Braithwaite, challenges students to think about what it’s like to be poor and how they might get out of the poverty cycle.

Braithwaite is no stranger to the challenges policymakers face when tackling issues of poverty. Having worked as a senior economist for the World Bank, Braithwaite has a deep understanding of the complexities and cyclical nature of poverty—at both the national and global level.  

Speaking with Braithwaite about the idea behind the simulation, which she has run for the past five years, she discussed the advantages of using an interactive tool such as a simulation to challenge students to think about what it’s like to be poor but also to develop empathy.

Developed by the Missouri Community Action Network, the simulation focuses exclusively on American poverty. Although the simulation itself has not changed since its inception, each iteration every year has—because of the students and the roles they are assigned within the simulation.  “In each simulation, there has been an outbreak of crime, but this year was less because the sheriff deputized someone,” Braithwaite says over the phone chuckling. “The characters and personalities that play the roles may vary but the roles designed according to the simulation do not.”

For Braithwaite, generating empathy is a crucial component of the simulation. “As a school of leadership and public policy, we want to create moral and ethical leaders.”

Prior to every simulation, Braithwaite gives participants a survey aimed at evaluating students’ overall experience, in particular when it comes to empathy.  “In previous years, we have been able to measure an increase in empathy in students after a poverty simulation.”

Speaking with some of the students who participated in last week’s simulation, the overall consensus revealed that being assigned certain roles created a number of constraints and challenges.

For Batten undergrad Morgan Kunst, there was not enough time to really accomplish anything. Working different jobs with long grueling hours as bills loomed made it hard for participants such as Kunst to feel like they were improving their situation. Instead, it felt like they were just surviving to makes ends meet.

For Batten student Maria Wong, coming from Ecuador and participating in a simulation about American poverty revealed to her that there is a higher level of interaction with lower income people in the U.S. than in Ecuador—where the gap between rich and poor is staggering.

“I definitely came away with much more empathy towards people living in those conditions and the day-to-day struggles they endure,” Wong said.

Whether or not these students go on to pursue careers that tackle issues related to poverty, there’s no doubt they will approach their work with heightened awareness and empathy.