Poverty simulation enlightens college students

By Mary P. Walker
Senior Correspondent

“Whether it’s not knowing when you can get your next meal, how you’ll get transportation, or if you’ll be able to make your next rent payment, it’s all stressful,” said Monica Salas, a sophomore industrial distribution major at Texas A&M University. She was one of approximately 60 students who participated in the “Poverty Simulation” sponsored by St. Mary Catholic Center in College Station on Feb. 4.
During this event, the students assumed the roles of poor people, who must meet their basic needs of food, shelter and transportation. To navigate their simulated lives, they traveled to different stations to buy food, pay rent and bills, cash checks, seek jobs, apply for food stamps and pawn goods for cash. In addition, they had to fulfill the responsibilities that society requires of us. For example, “parents” had to get their children to school.
The simulation was one hour long, with 15 minute segments, each representing one week in the course of a month. TJ Poynor, the campus ministry intern who led the experience, explained that the participants had to get through the month any way they could. If they were not able to do this, they suffered consequences, such as eviction. In addition, participants had to deal with surprise “life events,” usually bad news. 
Before the simulation began, “families” and individuals were given packets with their scenario. Also included were tokens for resources, including transportation, “checks,” “food stamps,” and vouchers representing possessions of value. 
The participants moved to different stations, trying to figure out how to acquire food, pay rent, seek employment and pay bills. Because many of the poor cannot maintain bank accounts, check cashing fees were accessed. The pawn shop station also did a brisk business. In addition, there was a station for a jail, for those who had brushes with the law. 
While each person had a different role, all quickly felt the harsh realities of their assumed lives. For example, one elderly “widow,” who lived on Social Security, had been making ends meet by renting unused rooms in her house. When the tenants left without paying, she could not keep up with her bills and could not afford to buy enough food.
Stations also included job, government and social service agencies to help the poor. However, getting help presented additional challenges, like finding transportation to get to the agency, finding out that one is not eligible, not having the necessary paperwork, or there is no job available that will pay enough to meet the needs of your family.
Eileen Kuvlesky played the role of a case worker at a government agency. Her job was to enforce the rules to determine eligibility. She appeared to be gruff and indifferent as she exhorted the participants to fill out the paperwork and answer her questions. Even for the college educated, the applications were long and confusing. 
If the applicant did not have the right documentation, they had to make another trip. If aid was eventually offered, it was never enough to improve the long-term goal of getting out of poverty, and multiple visits were required to determine eligibility. 
“I see some sad and needy cases on my home visits for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I think it was an eye opener for some of the students, and I hope the experience remains with them,” Kuvlesky said. 
Poynor observed that although the participants began the simulation never expecting to break the law, when their families were hungry and they were facing eviction, some resorted to illegal activities. Dmitri Garlic, a history major who played the role of teen within a family, had a surprising insight. At first, he “stole” to meet basic needs. However, he also experienced the thrill of getting away with something. He now understands how tempting it can for the disadvantaged to be caught in a cycle of crime when playing by the rules keeps you poor.
In the discussion afterward, the participants expressed both their frustration at not being able to meet all of their basic needs, and respect for those who must navigate a life of poverty day in and day out. In addition, often for the poor, a relatively small amount of money, such as a few hundred dollars to help pay rent, makes a profound difference in their circumstances. 
There was also compassion for those who work in agencies. They enter their jobs with the desire to help others, but have to shield themselves from the frustration of encountering so many in need and being able to do so little.  
Jackie Zimmerman of Catholic Charities of Central Texas played a role similar to that of a payday lender. She volunteered because she believes that empathy is a powerful tool for alleviating poverty.
“When those of us who know poverty firsthand can show others just how difficult it is to be poor in our community, a lot can be achieved,” she said.