Dordt College News

Dordt students learn from poverty simulation

November 8, 2006

Poverty Simulation

What is it like to live in poverty?

Over 100 students at Dordt College got just a taste of the daily challenges faced by 37 million Americans, by participating in a poverty simulation Monday, Nov. 6, held at the college’s West Commons.

Presented by Iowa State University Family Life field specialist Rhonda Rosenboom, and Sioux County Extension education director Cheryl Heronemus, the “State of Poverty Welfare Simulation” was sponsored by the Dordt College FACT Club (Future Active Christian Teachers), and included students majoring in education, social work, youth ministries and other career programs at Dordt.

The exercise is designed to help participants begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family, trying to survive from month to month. The object is to sensitize participants to the realities faced by low-income families.

Dordt’s 115 student participants were assigned a role in a “family” for the three hour simulation. Family members attempted to provide for basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.” Each family was assigned different circumstances: some were newly unemployed, some recently deserted by the primary wage-earner, others were disabled, senior citizens, etc.

Surrounding the meeting room were tables of volunteer staffers, who represented community resources and services (such as a grocery store, food pantry, bank, employment office, welfare office, pawnbroker, etc.). Throughout the simulation, students encountered the same challenges many families face daily: choosing between paying the mortgage or eating; not having the funds to pay for medicine; waiting in long lines for services; and turning to crime when there seems to be no other way out.

“I thought of myself and Zelda (the wife assigned during the simulation) as moral people, but around the third week when we hadn’t eaten, we went from being civilized to looking to take advantage of others,” recalls one student assigned the role of a 75-year-old man. He was not alone: in discussion time following the simulation, many students confessed that as their situations became more desperate they were drawn into illegal activities such as dealing drugs, stealing from others, etc., to avoid losing their homes or to feed their families.

Frustrated, helpless and overwhelmed were words that summed up most of the students reactions to the simulation. But family life specialist Rhonda Rosenboom said she was impressed with the creative solutions some students came up with to successfully make it through their month of simulated poverty.

Many participants said their attitudes toward the poor were impacted by the simulation. The county extension education director challenged education majors to remember this experience as they become teachers. “Some families may need to choose between a meal or the money for a fieldtrip … sometimes those children that habitually ‘forget’ their cap or gloves may actually not have the funds to buy them,” commented Heronemus.

The poverty simulation is a copyrighted learning tool created by the Reform Organization of Welfare (ROWEL). ISU Extension staff have conducted nearly 50 simulations across the state for church groups, educators, social workers, health care providers, clergy and community volunteers throughout Iowa. For more information, contact Rhonda Rosenboom at

Media Access: Download Word Version | High Resolution Image: 1