Role-play simulation opens eyes, hearts to poverty

Living in poverty is–well, take your pick: “stressful,” “frustrating,” “extremely difficult,” “powerless,” “overwhelming,” “hopeless.” Yet, mere words can’t begin to describe the real experience of struggling daily to survive in a life without.

That’s what about 50 people–mostly youth and young adults–discovered during a recent Poverty Simulation event hosted by Hopewell UM Church in Downingtown, Pa. During the four-hour program participants experienced some of the frustrations, obstacles and constraints of living with limited resources while trying to access social services to acquire basic necessities. Each was assigned an identity or role to play, saddled with a set of challenging circumstances; and they had to survive for a month, represented by four 15-minute weeks.

For a short while, participants lived diverse low-income lives–some with families, some disabled, some as senior citizens, some homeless or facing eviction. They had to interact with persons representing social workers, bill collectors, pawnbrokers, teachers, merchants, job interviewers, police officers, and so on.

The simulation event occurred Oct. 25 in Hopewell’s Family Life Center, ironic since family life was daunting for those who received only $10 to use for supplying their families’ needs. Some had to stand in long lines to request social services, only to encounter rude, uncaring, unhelpful, personnel. Dependence on public transportation was time-consuming, costly and inconvenient for those seeking jobs, child care vouchers, medical assistance or other needs.

The exercise offered a brief but troubling view of inefficient, confusing social welfare systems and widespread ignorance of public benefits and services that are available but too often go untapped. It helped participants understand the frustration and sense of failure that often produces anger, despair, conflicts in relationships and misdeeds in search of short cuts. Even for an hour, living the experience was no doubt more real and impactful than viewing it in a reality TV show.

Arthur Piancone of the Pocono Alliance (, an anti-poverty agency in Monroe County, facilitated  the simulation. He runs the Alliance’s Bridges Out of Poverty program.

Poverty simulations have been a popular event across the nation for years, often involving young people and staffs of human service agencies. As a learning tool they help people understand and become sensitized to the causes and consequences of poverty. After the exercise, participants are able to analyze this social disease from various angles and discuss possibilities for helping to make changes in their systems and communities.

Many of Hopewell’s participants described the simulation as “eye-opening” and shared insights they had learned, as well as what surprised them and what they wanted to learn more about. They spoke of the “extreme difficulty” in living and getting around;” the “barriers” and “dishonesty” they encountered when seeking services; the “frustration,” and “terrible downward spiral” in their emotions. “How quickly the simulation produced real feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and despair,” said one.

Some wanted to learn more about how and where to help people navigate systems to better access needed resources; how to become mentors and advocates for poor people; how to get people more involved in their communities; and what more their churches could do together to help provide child care, transportation and other dire needs. And of course, many expressed gratitude for being spared themselves from a life in poverty.

“I learned the lack of resources is frustrating to those in need,” said one. “I am thanking God for blessing our family and challenging us to do more for low-income families.”

“Our debriefing and conversation following the simulation was very fruitful,” reported Jen Lisowski, who helped plan the event. “We hope to be able to offer another simulation in the future to continue educating ourselves on how we may be better neighbors to those who are under-resourced in our community.”

–By John W. Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director

Information and photos provided by Jen Lisowski of Hopewell UMC.

Christina Siewert, a senior at Downingtown West High School and a member of Hopewell UMC, wrote about her Poverty Simulation experience on her blog the following day. Her essay offers profound insights into what was for many a life-changing experience.

A day in the life of 50 million Americans

By Christina Siewert

Yesterday morning I attended a Poverty Simulation at my church, Hopewell UMC. To be perfectly honest, I only signed up because I knew people going and thought it would be fun to hang out, and maybe learn a little bit about poverty at the same time. But I was in for a pretty big, rude, awakening by the end.

At the beginning of the simulation, we were organized into families. I was a 19-year-old high school dropout raising my one-year-old son. I was living with my boyfriend in a trailer, which was surprisingly expensive. The simulation consisted of four 15 minute “weeks”, through which we had to buy food, pay our mortgage, go to work, and do anything else necessary for our survival. In order to go anywhere, we needed a bus pass, which were one dollar each. And if I had to bring my son with me, I needed two passes.

I was able to get a job the first week, but I was fired the second week. I couldn’t bring my son with me to work, and I couldn’t afford childcare. Thereafter, I was in charge of taking care of various necessities while my boyfriend was bringing in the money. It was stressful. Long lines and unkind people really took a toll on me, even if it was just a simulation.

The worst part was waiting in a line for about half of the “week”, just to get to the front and find out that the Social Service Agency doesn’t provide job search services. And when I was finally able to receive a free childcare voucher, my son got sick. I had to lose my place in line, pick up my son, get back in the long line, and waste more bus passes bringing my son around with me. It didn’t even cross my mind to bring him to the hospital, because I knew I couldn’t afford it. Not to mention the services that were shady, taking more money than necessary or not giving me what I paid for.

I would love to say that I was remaining honest throughout the simulation, but that would be a lie. After not buying food for two weeks, and having our utilities cut off, I started getting desperate. I only gave bus passes when asked, and I only gave the second pass for my son when the workers noticed and reminded me.

The stress of the simulation was completely eye-opening to the struggles of under-resourced people. Living in an affluent neighborhood, it’s easy to say that people just need to “work harder”. But it’s not that easy. Because of my son, I couldn’t work. And my boyfriend’s full-time job only went so far in buying our necessities. Another thing that I realized was that I became very snippy with people. I was quick to raise my voice at people trying to help me, because I was so used to people not being helpful. We’re quick to judge under-resourced people who aren’t appreciative, but being in a high-stress situation makes people lash out.

Even though this was just a simulation, there are about 50 million Americans living below the poverty line throughout the country. This simulation gave me a lot to think about and ponder over the next few weeks. It completely changed the way I view those living in poverty, and has made me aware of the necessity for us to come together as a community to aid those struggling. I am forever grateful for those who came together to make this amazing simulation possible.

“Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” –Matthew 25:40.