Simulation Sensitizes Participants to the Experience of Poverty

By Rick Wolcott*

More than 1.5 million Ohioans, 14% of the State’s population, had incomes in 2017 that were below the poverty line of $24,860 for a family of four, according to data from the Center for American Progress.

Using a program recently purchased from the Missouri Community Action Network, the East Ohio Conference (EOC) Board of Church and Society, the Conference Commission on Religion and Race, Great Lakes Bridges Out of Poverty, and Thrivent Financial partnered to sponsor a poverty simulation at Dueber UMC (Tuscarawas District) in Canton on January 5.

Participants were each given names and assigned to families. As part of the simulation they were exposed to what it might be like to live for a month as a typical low-income family. The families started with different amounts of money, and different resources available to them. Among many scenarios, some had to go to work, some had to go to school, some had to do both, some had to negotiate being unable to afford utilities or medical care, and all had to do more with less.

“Poverty simulations give people an entrance point into beginning to be sensitized to the experience of poverty. What does it mean to live in an experience of deprivation, to live with limited resources, and what are the stresses that go along with that?” shared Dr. Heidi Gullett, a physician and staff member at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine in Cleveland and a co-chair of the Great Lakes Bridges Out of Poverty steering committee.

“Bridges Out of Poverty uses poverty simulations to help introduce people to the experience of poverty, but in no way approximates the experience of poverty. It helps them begin to understand our biases around our neighbors in need and how we approach and interact with them from a middle-class point of view, most times,” said Gullett, who attends Garfield Memorial UMC (North Coast District) and runs poverty simulations for all first-year medical students at CWRU.

She met the Rev. Kathy Dickriede, EOC coordinator of Missions and Community Engagement, through their work together with Bridges Out of Poverty, and EOC Director of Multicultural Vitality Will Jones at a poverty simulation. They, and Jennifer Hedinger of OhioGuidestone, developed a friendship and partnership from their shared experiences of helping those in poverty that was instrumental in organizing the first East Ohio Conference poverty simulation.

“OhioGuidestone is one of our United Methodist agencies that it’s important the Conference and our local churches partner with and learn from as they help us understand and be empathetic to peoples’ situations in life as they struggle with the system and with poverty. They walk alongside us, helping us help people in ways that make us all stronger together,” Dickriede said.

In one hour, participants of the simulation experienced a month of living in the shoes of the person whose situation they were assigned. The hour was divided into 15-minute increments, each representing one week of the month. If the person had a full-time job or was a child in school, eight of the 15 minutes were spent at their place of employment or in the classroom leaving seven minutes to get to and from work, buy groceries, pay bills, visit the doctor, etc.

“It was interesting to watch the real stress that my family members felt as they tried to make it through the week,” said the Rev. Marc Tibbs, of Willson UMC (North Coast District), who was assigned the identity of a one-year old. “My mom was a college student who never had time to get to school because while Dad was a work, Mom was busy running around to the social service agencies trying to get the things that we needed.”

“The thing that stuck out to me is how little time I had to interact with my family because of all of the responsibilities of working and trying to get services that we needed,” said Doris Feddersen of Uniontown UMC (Canal District), who was a grandmother with a disabled husband working hard to raise their two grandchildren.

Tables in fellowship hall served as family houses. The perimeter of the hall was home to trained volunteers serving as employees of one of the following: social services, interfaith services, a community action agency, a utility company, a food pantry, a doctor’s office, a bank, a rent/mortgage company, a general employer, a child care provider, a school, a quick cash store, a pawn shop, and the police station.

Alex Miller, director of Family Ministries at Greensburg UMC (Canal District) was a 20-year old college student with two 13-year old sisters and a two-year old brother. The siblings’ dad was incarcerated, and their mother had abandoned her children.

“One of my sisters stepped up and took on the role of a mother to her sister and younger brother and I was very much thrust into fatherhood to protect and keep the family together,” he said. “It made me think back to my years of urban youth ministry in Pittsburgh and all those youth who I realize now weren’t really youth at all. As we move forward from here in our youth and family ministry, we need to ask ourselves, ‘how can we help those who really are children, and who are those who need to be children?’”

“I now understand why parents don’t have time to practice flashcards with their kids,” said Debbie Diadiun of Mayfield UMC (Western Reserve District), a tutor who admits being frustrated by students who don’t complete their assignments.

“I didn’t realize that parents didn’t have time to practice the flashcards with their kids because they spend all day prioritizing what bills they’re going to be able to pay, wondering if the house will be foreclosed upon, and hoping there will be enough time after work to get to the bank before it closes,” she said. “Yet flashcards are important because if kids don’t get a good education they won’t be able to break this cycle of poverty. So, this simulation was very eye-opening to me in that way.”

The Rev. Pam Buzalka, pastor of Park UMC (Canal District), noticed three things about the customers who visited the pawnshop she operated during the poverty simulation: a sense of shame, a sense of depersonalization, and a sense of numbness.

“I work in a free store that our church operates with another church and I register people and listen and pray with them and I often see that numb, almost shell-shocked face, because of situations that have piled on top of each other and it’s overwhelming to them. This simulation mimics real life, and it felt real to everyone who participated in it,” she said.

Emily Richards of OhioGuidestone said that shame contributes to the isolation that people living in poverty can feel.

“Watching the simulation, it was interesting because all of the families were struggling but very few interacted with each other to really share services and trade goods with each other, choosing to try and do things on their own out of shame,” she said.

“We want people who participate to leave having grown in empathy and understanding of how difficult it is and how stressful it is to live in poverty or to not be a person of means. With the vast expression of diversity in The United Methodist Church, this simulation is an opportunity for us to gain some perspective on poverty,” Jones said.

“The outcome goal is that churches that are participating in this Conference event will want to host a poverty simulation in their own communities or districts to understand their local context better to be able to go out to serve and minister with people in a more compassionate, understanding, and empathetic kind of way,” added Dickriede.

The final part of the simulation brought families back to their table homes during lunch for guided discussion about what comes next and conversation about how what was learned, and felt, and experienced could be applied to help vulnerable families in our communities.

“This simulation is about making sure that people of all classes understand poverty and all of the different causes of poverty, that range from individual behavior to systems and structures to human exploitation and community resources. The important thing is that with all of that it takes all of us across all classes coming together for honest, authentic dialogue,” Gullett added. “The idea is that people don’t stay in poverty but that we provide options for people to stabilize their lives and move out of poverty. This is the beginning of those type of longer-term conversations.”

The poverty simulation was the second Perspectives event hosted by the Conference office of Multicultural Vitality to assist participants in learning from another perspective. The first Perspectives event was Black Theologian Day in October, and the next will be a Native American Awareness day on May 4.

Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.