Poverty Simulation Brings Tough Issues to Life

By Emily Blackner

Elm Staff Writer

One hundred people, one room, three hours, and a whole lot of emotion: this is just one of many ways to describe the Washington College poverty simulation held on Nov. 14. The experience was challenging and informative, giving students the opportunity to better understand the hardships facing those who live in poverty.

Dr. Ryan Kelty of the sociology department found out about this particular simulation, the Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS), second-hand.

“Tara Holste, Research Assistant with the Center for Environment and Society, did the exact same simulation in college. She said it was life-changing, even after all those years, so I thought we had to do it here,” Kelty said. “Last fall, I took my social inequalities class to Frederick County to participate and was impressed enough with it to bring it to campus.”

Students gathered at 5 p.m. in the Lifetime Fitness Center to find their “family,” a group of other students with whom they would be working closely. The families were representative of real families facing real situations; for example, a husband who recently lost his job and was unable to find work to help support his wife and children. Other common themes were young children or pregnant teenagers.

Kelty’s PowerPoint at the beginning of the simulation stressed that poverty is a local and regional problem as well as a national one. In Kent County alone, nearly 3,000 people are impoverished; this is 12 percent of the population. In Maryland overall, as of 2009, 9.1 percent of people live below the poverty line; this is an increase of 1.1 percent since 2008. The number of people in poverty has increased over the past three years, and it is currently at its highest point nationwide than at almost any other point in the 51 years those statistics were kept.

“One of the hardest parts of a simulation like this is helping participants understand that it is not just their simulated family that is struggling, but that there are systemic structures embedded in our society that may be either intentionally or unintentionally creating barriers that constrain the empowerment and advancement of those in poverty,” said Kelty.

The simulation was divided into four 15-minute increments, each representing one week. Those whose characters were lucky enough to have jobs reported to work for seven minutes, which severely limited the amount of time they had to accomplish other tasks such as securing food and clothing, paying rent or the mortgage, and taking care of children. In order to travel to any one of those places, participants needed to have a transportation pass for each person traveling with them to represent the cost of fuel or public transportation or the time spent walking.

In addition to expenses like rent or utilities that were printed on the Family Profile sheet given to each participant at the beginning of the simulation, unexpected costs sprung up. Many of these came from the ‘Luck of the Draw’ cards that Kelty distributed throughout the simulation, which detailed a specific situation that could arise, such as the theft of a car. Even though some of those were positive things, it was difficult to take advantage of them in the hectic pace of the simulation.

“The simulation began with 20 simulated families. By the end, despite educated, capable people acting in the simulation, eight families were evicted and four more would have been had those conducting the evictions had more time in the final week,” said Kelty.

Only a few people managed to make their situation better within the simulated month; two women who had started off in the homeless shelter were able to share a house and, by splitting costs between them, make ends meet. Some families barely managed to subsist, and the vast majority rated their situation as worse off by the end of the simulation.

CAPS was designed to give participants a glimpse into the life of a family living at or below the poverty line. Many real families face even tougher choices and more hardships because most of the characters represented were at the federal poverty line or just below it, while 6.3 percent of Americans live in extreme poverty, making less than half of the required income to be considered poor.

“At the end of the day, we need to own up to the fact that as a society we structure the distribution of resources–we create the social systems that allow for (if not promote) the kind of social class stratification that allows the majority of wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a very few while signficant numbers struggle to get by,” said Kelty.

Jesse Schaefer, president of the Service Council, hopes students will learn not to blame the poor for their situation. “I think too often we fail to recognize the institutional mechanisms that contribute to poverty,” she said. “We view it as an individual thing; he or she is just lazy as opposed to blaming forces at the national level. It’s good to walk in someone else’s shoes.” Participants worked hard to make ends meet. Some characters were even college educated–one was a computer programmer–and still couldn’t find work because there just weren’t jobs available.

Kelty hopes that the simulation gave students a better understanding of a little bit of what it is like to live in poverty. “It raised lots of questions. And, you expose people to experiences in a liberal arts education to give them tools to move toward answers,” he said.

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