April 25, 2013Vol. 43, Issue 2

A Day in the Life: Poverty Simulation Provides New Perspective

“Remember,” Professor Laurie Browne’s voice rang out. “Your goals are to survive the month and keep your family safe.”

These simple instructions became a mantra for the 100 or so students navigating four “weeks” in a life of poverty as part of a pilot simulation held on campus April 9.

Led by Browne, Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management, and social work professor Susan Roll, the three-hour exercise took students through one month in the life of families struggling to make ends meet. Each student was given a role to play, and using limited resources, families were required to “visit” agencies such as the welfare office, employment support, and utility companies—all on a deadline and limited cash. 

“We’re really just trying to get people to understand the structural barriers involved in being financially stable,” Browne said. “Even if you think you understand, until you’ve lived it, you have no idea the challenges that are involved.”

The students jumped into the exercise with both feet. Froilan Frias, who is working toward his master’s in social work, played a married man with a 15-year-old daughter, an unemployed wife, and a live-in father-in-law. As soon as the simulation began, Frias made a beeline for the employment center, where he reported for work and waited out the week to be paid.

“With $1,500 a month to feed the whole family and pay the mortgage, you just have to go by what you need right now, you can’t really think long term.” –Brittany Larson, junior, Multicultural Health

“My plan is to go to work every day,” he said matter-of-factly. “I asked my ‘wife’ to go to the unemployment office after she dropped off our daughter off at school. We have a plan.”

Not all were as immediately successful. Junior Brittany Larson, a multicultural health major, found herself playing the sole breadwinner in a household of four. She had a job, but no money for transportation. Larson visited about four different agencies around the room, each with lines six deep or more, before she acquired $35 by hawking furniture at a pawn shop. She used every penny to buy transportation passes to get to work.

Larson didn’t end up making it in time, and her paycheck was docked as a result.

By the simulated week three, Alexine Guerrero, a health administration major, found herself among about half a dozen others in a temporary housing shelter. As part of the simulation, her purse had been stolen, leaving her without money, food, or a job—or even a social security number to get any of those things. She couldn’t pay her rent and was waiting out the month in the shelter.

“It’s stressful,” Guerrero said. “It’s opened my eyes to how hard poverty is.”

That, Browne said, is exactly the point. With portions of Butte County reporting higher poverty levels than parts of L.A. County, she said, the aim is to open students’ eyes to the structural and systemic challenges inherent in living with a low income.

“There’s this idea that people in poverty just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she said. “We’re hoping to change the way students think about the issue and see if we can get that to reflect in their coursework.”

Students assess their finances as part of the simulation.

Students assess their finances as part of the simulation.

Grants from the Department of Behavioral Sciences Strategic Performance Funds, Research and Sponsored Programs, and the College of Communication and Education provided the seed money to purchase the simulator kit and hire a graduate research team.

“This semester was a pilot study,” Roll said. “We wanted to test the simulation with as many students as possible and gather data on its ability to create empathy.”

Larson, the junior whose pay was docked for being late to work when she could’t afford a ride, said the experience was eye opening.

“Growing up, it’s not like we had a lot of money, but we had the essentials,” she said. “With $1,500 a month to feed the whole family and pay the mortgage, you just have to go by what you need right now, you can’t really think long term.”

One student, who asked to remain anonymous, related personally to the frenzy of juggling it all. As a single parent who works and attends school full-time, she said, “it’s a monthly struggle.”

Having completed the pilot study, Browne said, the goals for next semester are to find the simulator a permanent home—whether in a course or umbrella program—and to study exactly how it actually affects the attitudes and behaviors of participants. 

“We know students are gaining empathy,” she said. “Now we want to see whether they’re more open to thinking about social issues in the classroom.”

—Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications. Photography by Frank Rebelo.