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“Can you survive poverty?”: The NDSU Poverty Simulation Program

Financial Wellness
January 11, 2016 Hailey Goplen Assistant Director for Civic Engagement, North Dakota State University

Can you survive a month in poverty?

This is the question posed to participants signed up for North Dakota State University’s (NDSU) Poverty Simulation Program.

While NDSU has a rich history in civic programming and service initiatives around poverty, the programming tended to follow more traditional models. While impactful, I wondered if a program could be developed where students could begin to understand the complex issues around cyclical poverty at a deeper more experiential level. It was then I thought about a powerful experience I had while serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA: the Poverty Simulation.

Developed by The Missouri Association of Community Action (MACA), simulation participants experience one “month” (divided into four 15-minute weeks) as a family navigating the complexities of life in poverty. Participants role-play the lives of low-income families, from single parents trying to provide for their children, to senior citizens trying to maintain their self-sufficiency on Social Security. The task of each family is to provide food, shelter, and other basic necessities while interacting with various community resources. The goal of the simulation is to enable participants to view poverty from different angles in order to understand what life is like with a shortage of money and an abundance of stress and become motivated to be part of the solution to ending poverty in the United States.

To run the simulation, at least fifteen volunteers are needed to staff the resource stations. Volunteers are recruited from local nonprofits, college departments, and past participants. This has helped to forge new partnerships with academic affairs and the surrounding community as well as empower past student participants into leadership roles.

Since the program was first implemented in April 2015, one hundred participants have gone through the simulation with a projected two hundred and fifty more participants expected during the Spring 2016 semester. This sharp rise in participation is largely in part to colleges across campus wishing to partner and provide the simulation for some of their students.

While the partnerships with academic affairs and student affairs have been a huge success, the greatest outcome is the student learning. As one student states:

“The simulation made me realize that living in poverty is very stressful. I only had to experience this for about two hours and by the second week, I was ready to give up. We had $10, no job, were losing our house, the pawn shop wouldn’t buy anything from us, and social services were taking to too long to get any money. It is hard to think that our 15 minutes is a normal day for someone in poverty.”

Other participants noted how their views changed after going through the simulation:

“Prior to the simulation I struggled to understand why some people living in poverty didn’t just go out and get a job or get a better paying job. After the simulation my perception changed immensely. I now understand that just because there are jobs out there doesn’t mean it’s easy to get hired.”

“I used to think people in poverty just didn’t try hard enough and that they were lazy. I now understand how hard they [people in poverty] work to survive.”

Finally, participants noted how the simulation could help them in their future careers:

“It was very stressful. I was playing the part of a 9-year-old boy and while I was at school I was worrying about what my family members were doing to get money and I wasn’t paying attention to the teacher. I am going to be a teacher someday and it made me realize I will have students that deal with this in my classroom.”

What started as an experiment in alternative programming has grown beyond expectations. While we are just beginning to discover how the Poverty Simulation program can be utilized across NDSU and the impact it will have on students, one thing is for sure. This nontraditional programming is making waves, building partnerships across campus, and most importantly, having students confront poverty head-on in order to become allies for change in the future.