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Poverty Simulators & Exercises

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
May 2, 2017 Eden C. Tullis

This scenario may be common to a lot of us professionals, but let’s explore it anyways. You’re at a conference and heading to your next workshop or break-out session. The session you’re going to is called The Cycle of Poverty, or some variation of that. No matter the title, that isn’t the most defining piece of this session. The topic at hand is what we want to zero in on.

You’re feeling pretty good about the topic. You’re a little nervous about it just because the title is a little vague, but overall, you’re excited to dig a little deeper. On a scale from 1-10, you’d rate your understanding of poverty at an 8 (this is pre-session mind you). You not only work at a community college, but you also grew up in a working class family so you’ve seen the complexities of poverty first-hand. This session will mostly be a refresher, but you’re also hoping for a renewed perspective. And oh, does your perspective shift. You fill out the workshop’s evaluation at the end and answer candidly that you feel like your understanding of poverty is now at 5.5. What happened?

Before even going over definitions and best practices, the facilitators immediately divided you and the rest of the participants into a group. You were handed a stack of cards, and in those cards were descriptors about who you were in this scenario: Mary, age 37, has 2 kids, makes $1,950 a month.  Now, how are you going to spend the money? There’s rent and that’s $450, medical expenses/insurance is $300. That’s $750 already. The group realizes they have to factor in travel and food, too. What about clothes? Will the kids get clothes and Mary gets none? Mary is job searching so she needs at least 1 presentable outfit. And what about fun or savings? Is there even money for either?

In the middle of all this, you as the participant panic a little bit since your own understanding of this topic is so meniscal. Why didn’t you know more about this lifestyle before? How can you know more? What resources are available on your campus that you can share with students? You’re not “making bank” as a higher ed professional, but you aren’t doing terrible, either. The realities of low-income living and poverty settle in, and the greatest take-away from the session is that people living like this aren’t able to save up. Why? Because there is little to no money to save in the first place. It’s the first time you’ve pondered how poverty and class is a cyclical cycle that may never end, especially when life happens and someone’s car needs repairs or a hospital bill comes crashing down.

The most important part about poverty simulators is that they force us to sit and grapple with how we become more equipped to show empathy and understanding towards students who are at the poverty level. These types of exercises always make me uncomfortable because I am confronted with the fact that the problem of poverty can’t just be resolved with an easy fix. Our society tells us that our students who are live with poverty ought to “pull themselves up from their bootstraps,” but that’s just not an adequate way of supporting our students. We must validate (not question) our students when they tell us they are struggling, know what the resources are on our individual campuses, and be ready to point them in the right direction. At South Seattle College, for example, we have Emergency Funds. Students can only get funded once, and they have to commit to go to advising appointments and college completion meetings. The funds used to just go towards tuition or books, but we are now expanding the program so it is more inclusive of the many facets that impact academic success. Now, given their circumstances, the funding can be applied towards a student’s tools or other resources that are required for a course, car troubles, and rent- just to name a few. The next thing we want to explore is gift cards for gas stations or grocery stores. As a member of the Emergency Funds Committee at SSC, I find this work extremely important because being successful and healthy outside the classroom most definitely affects how a student shows up inside the classroom.

Let’s take it back to that scenario with Mary. If she only has enough money to buy food for her kids one day and then has to travel by foot to school and work, what’s her mental state going to look like? Just think about the last time you were “hangry.” Could you concentrate on much? If you haven’t participated in a poverty simulation before, I highly encourage it. You’ll learn a lot about your own understanding of class and be more prepared to holistically support a student or friend in need.