Walking In Their Shoes

Students Experience Poverty for a Night

It's Monday morning in Realville, USA. The town's residents are slowly moving into their days - some are going to work, some are looking for jobs; some are taking their children to school or day care, while others are staying at home to care for young, elderly or disabled family members. Their situations are different, but their challenge is the same - successfully get through the days, weeks and month ahead.

For some 75 Niagara University students, Realville was located in the central exhibition hall of the Castellani Art Museum, and the month they negotiated was completed in an hour and a half on a Tuesday night in March.

It was the second night of a two-night poverty simulation coordinated by Dr. Kevin Blair, associate professor of social work. Blair, who teaches a course on poverty, had participated in a similar exercise conducted by the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County and thought it would be a valuable experience for students.

The event is "a virtual simulation of life on the edge," Blair said. "Participants take on roles and responsibilities of families with low incomes and face the challenges of those with little money and a lot of stress."

Following the Missouri Community Action Program's simulation experience, Blair worked with a group that included faculty members, administrators and community agency representatives to develop the event. The location was secured, volunteers to staff resource tables were recruited, and several classes were invited to participate. The event was held on two consecutive evenings to accommodate the number of participants and their schedules.

For those two nights, the Castellani was transformed into a small community, complete with a bank, a grocery store, a school, a child care center, a pawn shop, a police department, a mortgage company, a Quick Cash store, and human service agencies. Students portrayed the residents of the community and their circumstances varied widely. For four 15-minute intervals ("weeks"), they were tasked with providing the basic necessities and shelter for themselves and their families using whatever means of income they had. To make the experience even more realistic, "Luck of the Draw" cards representing real-life situations like a purse being stolen, a car needing repairs, or a loan being paid back, were distributed throughout the evening. Other factors, including a weeklong school vacation, job layoffs, and the limited availability of transportation passes, provided additional challenges for the participants. By the end of the "month," several families had been evicted from their homes, others hadn't fed their families for weeks, and almost everyone felt that their "lives" were worse off than they were when they had started.

"I started out optimistic because I had all this aid," said Amanda Geary, a junior political science/international studies major from Syracuse, N.Y., who portrayed a 19-year-old single mother of two. However, she said that few community resources and services would accept the aid, and she became frustrated. "I was legitimately mad! I couldn't pawn anything, I couldn't cash any checks. At the end, it was easier to stay home."

Students were surprised at how much time it took to be poor. "If I had one or two more minutes, I could have accomplished so much more," one observed. They also began to realize how much it costs to raise a family, and how the stress of coping with poverty could affect them.

"When we first started, we were a happy family," said one student. "But the longer we went, the less our family stayed together." He and his "wife" had even considered divorce, he added.

One of the biggest perceptions people have of those living in poverty is that they are lazy, noted Dr. Abigail Levin, an assistant professor of philosophy whose class participated in the simulation on the second night. "One of the best things that's come out of this simulation is that people realize that's not so," she said.

Blair noted that the feedback he has gotten from the students has been positive. "Many of the students have asked how the poor ever survive," he said. "How can they possibly exist for any length of time under such financial and time pressures?"

It is expected that the experience has changed the students' views on poverty, and Blair and his colleagues are conducting research to determine if this is the case. They are currently analyzing pre- and post-event surveys that were completed by the simulation participants to see if there is an increased level of empathy toward the poor. Blair hopes to publish the results of this research and promote the survey as an instrument in and of itself. If all goes as planned, the simulation will become an annual event, and Blair will track students' attitudes toward the poor over several years. He is also considering replicating the survey and simulation at other local colleges.

While the direct influence of the poverty simulation was limited to the 140 students who participated, its indirect effect may be far-reaching, if students accept the challenge issued to them by Karen Edmond, field practicum coordinator in the social work department, who directed the event on the second night. "This poverty simulation does not have to end here," she said. "My charge for you all is to educate other people. Don't let it end here."