Simulating Poverty: Is this an Effective Way to Understand the Experience?


Global Survivor 2012: ‘Struggle for Survival’ urban poverty simulation / Crossroads Foundation Photos

August 1, 2016; Herald-Whig

The Mission of Hope in Stillwater, OK offers homeless individuals and families supportive housing, food, case management, transportation, laundry facilities and life skills training. Housing options include emergency shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing and permanent supportive housing for veterans. Almost every city in America has the equivalent of The Mission of Hope, and more and more communities and agencies are conducting poverty simulation workshops to help find understanding and solutions for the poor.

The OSU Payne County Extension office offered The Mission of Hope a poverty simulation workshop designed to help participants begin to understand what their clients endure to survive month to month. It is not a game. During the simulation, participants role-play the lives of families living at or below the poverty level. Participants are sensitized to what it is to be poor, albeit in a room condensing one month of challenges into a day, gaining insight into the state of chronic crisis that consumes so many working poor families. At least half the family groups ended the simulation exercise homeless without getting their nutritional needs met. Participants described feeling “overwhelmed, helpless, lonely, confused, inadequate and desperate.”

You spend a lot of time waiting, whether it’s for a bus, a ride, your turn in line or an approval. Transportation is a constant challenge. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get any kind of help. Some people don’t have anywhere to go or anyone to turn to. The Stillwater News Press reports that any unexpected expense, not matter how small, can start a chain reaction that ends with you on the street. People don’t treat you with respect and you’re often expected to pay for assistance with your dignity. These are the kinds of things a group of Mission of Hope homeless shelter residents say they wish social service providers and employers could understand.

When you see someone injured, it doesn’t take mental gymnastics to figure out how you feel; discomfort automatically washes over you. But empathy can fail when it is most needed. Stress can limit the psychological space that people have for others. Power can numb those who possess it at the expense of those who don’t. Enshrining bureaucratic rules, enforcing quotas, and just getting through the tedium of the day can kill empathy. But can simulating what it is to be on the receiving end of social services can help providers remember why they are there and how difficult it is to be poor?

Many of the participants found themselves feeling frustrated and even becoming angry after being sent back and forth across town, taking time they couldn’t afford out of their day and forcing them to use more of the precious transportation vouchers they’d been given. Transportation was a major issue for many of the families as they dealt with car repairs and struggled to find gas money or someone to give them a ride. Several lost their jobs when they missed work because they didn’t have transportation. Some participants found themselves homeless because they paid a car payment or a full utility bill and didn’t have enough money left to cover housing. Others forgot about food.

The poverty simulation experience enables participants to look at poverty from a variety of angles and then to recognize and discuss the potential for change within their agency and community. 

In an article well worth the read, Fortune recently wrote about the rise of poverty simulation workshops, including a few horror stories of some taking the concept too far. They dubbed the practice “misery tourism” and wrote “What was done with little attention in the past has become a small cottage industry, as the privileged try to understand at least a bit of what the poor and refugees face.” And, indeed the descriptions of some of the events are creepy – a “homeless plunge” here, a “fun and insightful” foray into a “rundown, oppressive slum” there. Is it better or worse than the busloads of philanthropists that sometimes descend upon a neighborhood when a high toned philanthropic gathering is nigh?

We would be very interested to hear what our readers think about these manufactured reality shows. —James Schaffer

  • Rhiannon Orizaga

    Perhaps the real value depends on who organizes it, and to what end? If there are actual poor people involved in creating a realistic simulation (and getting paid for it, of course), it could be a valuable and eye-opening experience. If it’s organized by people one step removed from poverty (i.e., service providers) it will have a limited version of realism since they only see it from 9 to 5 and one step removed. Do the proceeds go to helping people who need it? Are they reinvested in a meaningful way? Or is just a tourism exercise? I knew plenty of misery tourists growing up, who were always visiting some slum in Northern Mexico for church or touring homeless shelters on Spring Break. The idea of it always made me feel uneasy, as it perpetuates a white savior complex (or perhaps a middle-class savior complex).

    • Cloggie

      You’d probably enjoy the Tumblr: Barbie Savior.

    • Joseph

      I agree completely–the last poverty simulation in which I participated was planned and executed by the top tier executives, who make roughly six times what the lowest paid member of the staff earns. Those of us who are actually immersed in the lived experience of poverty and near-poverty were grievously insulted by the efforts of upper middle class majority men to inform us regarding what challenges the working poor encounter. If I had known that some of our clients (or even our staff) who earn below Federal Poverty Guidelines actually played a role in planning, the exercise would have had far greater legitimacy for me.

  • I do not question the motives of those seeking a better understanding of poverty through simulations of living in poverty. However, whatever the benefits on an individual, personal level, this experience is best understood when related to the necessity of working systemically toward racial and gender equity and social and economic justice.

    Among other things, this requires directly linking nonprofit successful but necessarily very limited progress in reducing white supremacy the inherent economic inequities in capitalism to the democratic transformation, not the privatizing, of power relations in the public sector.

    It is essential for democracy to have a public sector that can effectively reduce and, in the best of all possible worlds, eliminate large scale problems that market-driven, private sector dominated economies always produce. This cannot be done by relying primarily on the “good will of socially conscious” corporations, the charitable contributions of foundations to well intended nonprofit organizations, or the most sincere efforts of individuals.

    It can only be accomplished by a vigorous public sector capable of establishing the public policies and practices of social democratic or democratic socialist governments accountable to the vast majority of people, not only the wealthy few.

  • I have submitted my comment twice, and it has not been published. Evidently it has not passed the thought police censors at the NPQ for some reason. If this is the case, you should be ashamed of yourselves for being so afraid of allowing a mildly controversial comment to be a part of this discussion. Are you at least willing to let me know the nature of your problem with my comment?