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The Poverty Simulation Comes to TU

My Poverty Simulation Experience at TU

By Andrew Venezio, TU Senior Organizational Studies Major w/ Marketing Minor, True Blue Neighbors Intern


The Poverty Simulation came to the University of Tulsa on January 31st, 2019 and it gave students and faculty the chance to experience how living in poverty feels to the 15.8% of Oklahomans who are currently living in such conditions. This event was repeatedly described to us as a simulation to ensure that we, the participants, did not treat it like a game.

During the simulation, participants role-played a month in poverty as a low-income family. The “community” consisted of about 20 diverse “families” who each had unique struggles. Each participant assumes the identity of a family member and as a family, they must live a month in poverty. Like many real families, the families in the simulation faced many different challenges whether it was being a newly single mother, a family of 5 with only one income, or having a family member who was disabled or required expensive medical treatments.

My assigned family was a family of 3. A newly single 34 year old mother who had not worked since having children, a 17 year old high school dropout son who got the neighbor pregnant and hung out with the neighborhood drug dealers, and a 14 year old daughter who enjoyed school. Our scenario was that the father of our family had just left us with only $10.00 and no signs of coming back.

Around the “neighborhood” were many different services that are regularly used by people who live below the poverty line. These included, a bank, pawn shop, a small loans/check cashing station, grocery store, general employment station, social services, and a transportation station. There was also a school for the kids and people attending community college, a homeless shelter for those who could not pay their bills, and an interfaith service. In the back of the room was the police station and the jail for those who are caught stealing. The stations were set up as tables on the perimeter of the room which created a realistic confusion as participants scrambled from service to service. As we soon found out, the transportation station was incredibly important to the families because a transportation pass is needed in order to go from service to service. A transportation pass represents the costs that correspond with traveling to stations whether it is car expenses, gas for the week, or bus passes.

The simulation consisted of four, 15 minute intervals, which represented four work weeks. For each week, those who were able were at the employment office either getting a job or working a job. This proved difficult for many participants because their identities were unqualified to be employed and they were left with no option to help their family. Those who had a job or went to school would be busy at their stations for about 10 minutes before they were released to do their other duties for the week. This resulted in a mad scramble as the workers were trying to cash checks and then go buy food, buy transportation passes, or pawn items in order to pay bills. While there were participants able to scramble around and complete tasks, there were also those who were unable to help. For instance, the identity I was playing was a 17 year old high school dropout. As a dropout I was unable to attend school so the first week I went to the employment station in order to find a job but was unsuccessful because of I had no qualifications. This left me sitting around the “house” for most of the week.

The role I was assigned said that at 17 I was affiliated with the neighborhood drug dealing gang and while there was not a physical group of people on the “street corner” it was pretty clear how I could have gotten to that point. Between being denied a job and not being in school, there was nothing I could do to help out my family and I was left to do nothing. Even for the severely compressed time of the simulation I found myself to be extremely bored and helpless. It gave me a real understanding of how a young man in that situation could be led towards a life of crime. A 17 year old who could not get a job, attend school, or help with daily tasks has little to no opportunity and would be looking for any way to pass the time. This feeling was really compounded when the family bills started piling up and I was unable help the family. The simulation did not really have a way for the “drug dealers” to make any money but it would have been my best bet to help the family pay the bills.

Another interesting service during the simulation was the police and social services stations. During the simulation, if a house was left unattended and unlocked, the contents within were available to be stolen. With bills piling up and no adult supervision, my “sister” was caught stealing from the house next door and had to be picked up. When I went to pick her up, I was turned away because I was only 17 so our mother, who had to leave her place in line at the grocery store and spend crucial time and money to get her out. Not only did we lose out on food for the week and a few extra bucks but we had to use a valuable transportation pass that lost us even more time the following week. It was another great example of how important time is and how distractions can have a much bigger impact than just the initial event.

The biggest takeaways I got from attending the Poverty Simulation were the importance of time, situational awareness, and transportation. Timing was crucial in our simulation and while the 15 minute weeks were hectic, it gave great insight into how time needs to be properly managed. The stores and service stations were just across the room and yet people were constantly running from station to station trying to get things done before the weekend. Imagining this in the real world means that someone would have to be traveling all around town, covering miles instead of moving ten feet to the next station. Not only will these errands take time out of the day but they would be impossible without having an effective transportation system. Using transportation passes really drove home how necessary having a form of transportation is and was an excellent way to show the participants how we take our cars for granted. The most profound realization I got from attending the Poverty Simulation was the situational awareness you must have when you are living under such conditions. Understanding which bills have to be paid before you are moved to homeless shelter, how much food the family needs for the week, how many hours to work for the week, how many transportation passes are needed for the week, and where your kids/other family members are would be only a handful of the tasks juggled by a leader of an impoverished family. These stresses do not fall on just the parents or leaders of the family but the family as a whole needs to understand the predicament and make choices for the betterment of the family as a whole. Each member of a family needs to make appropriate sacrifices or fill shoes they would not normally have to fill in hopes of leaving poverty behind and I experienced that through this simulation.