Archived Voice Articles

Education students better understand poverty

By Jane Ver Steeg

What is it like to live in poverty? Over 100 students at Dordt College got a taste of the daily challenges faced by thirty-seven million Americans by participating in a poverty simulation on November 6.

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.

Big Dave's Pawnshop was a popular location in the poverty simulation at Dordt College, as students tried to sell their limited

Big Dave's Pawnshop was a popular location in the poverty simulation at Dordt College, as students tried to sell their limited "possessions" to come up with enough cash to pay for family necessities.

The exercise was 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 goal was 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 basic necessities and shelter during four fifteen-minute “weeks.” Each family was assigned different circumstances: some were newly unemployed, some recently deserted by the primary wage-earner, others were disabled or senior citizens.

Surrounding the meeting room were tables of volunteer staffers, who represented community resources and services (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 seventy-five-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 and stealing from others to avoid losing their homes and to feed their families.

"Frustrated, helpless, and overwhelmed" summed up the students’ reactions to the simulation. But family life specialist Rhonda Rosenboom said she was impressed with the creative solutions at which some students arrived to successfully endure their month of simulated poverty.

Many participants said their attitudes toward the poor were affected 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 members have conducted nearly fifty simulations across the state for church groups, educators, social workers, health care providers, clergy, and community volunteers.