United Way conducts first poverty simulation

Submitted photo Around 50 business leaders, school administrators and other community members participated in the United Way of Southwest Minnesota Poverty Simulation on Tuesday.

MARSHALL — What is daily life like for poor people?

Around 50 business leaders, school administrators and other community members got the chance recently to experience a little of what people with limited resources have to go through to make it from one day to the next.

On Oct. 11, the United Way of Southwest Minnesota hosted a Poverty Simulation, designed to help individuals better understand poverty by stepping into the real-life situations of others struggling with, and living in, poverty. Roles of available community services were played by United Way community partner nonprofit organizations and members of the United Way staff.

The event took place at the National Guard Armory in Marshall and was the first simulation conducted by the United Way with plans to continue offering additional simulations in the future.

“While difficult to comprehend, poverty is a reality for many individuals, seniors and families in southwest Minnesota,” said President and CEO Marcy Heemeyer. “Through this simulation experience, our hope is that our community will better understand what it means to live in poverty, learn what resources exist locally and further develop and cultivate an environment of empathy and understanding for our friends and neighbors.”

The simulation experience was designed to demonstrate to those who have enough to understand the situations that families living in poverty experience every day, the decisions they have to make, and the fears and frustrations they feel.

“The participants were divided up and assigned to a family group,” said Heemeyer. “They might be a single person, a single parent, a grandparent raising grandkids… They have to spend a month in poverty. They were tasked with things such as if they had a job, they had to get to work, if they were not employed, they were seeking employment, they had to get their kids to school, pay the rent. Some lived in homes or apartments. Some were homeless.”

Heemeyer said before the simulation the participants filled out a pre-assessment on their views of poverty and after the simulation they were given a post-assessment.

“Overwhelmingly, they said it was an eye-opening experience,” she said. “Other commenters said they were exhausted at the end of the month, how much of a struggle it was and how there was limited time for joy or fun. There was limited time to address health needs.”

In the southwest region of the state, 10.5 percent of the population is living in poverty, according to Minnesota Compass (2015). For example, more than 1,100 students or 46 percent of Marshall Public School students were enrolled in the Free and Reduced Price Meal Program during the 2016-17 school year. Percentages at nearby schools included similar or higher percentages. Here are just a few examples: Dawson-Boyd (38 percent), Yellow Medicine East (43 percent), Westbrook-Walnut Grove (55 percent) and Lynd (64 percent).

“Many more families have incomes above the poverty line, but their incomes are still low enough to qualify for programs like food stamps and Medicaid — and paying the bills is an exhausting daily struggle,” Heemeyer said.

Local nonprofits and social service organizations continue to see an increase in need, she said.

“Poverty is a real concern right here in southwest Minnesota and in all of the communities that our local United Way serves,” she said. “According to the mn.gov website, the official poverty threshold in 2016 was about $24,600 for a family of four.”

United Way of Southwest Minnesota purchased a Community Action Poverty Simulation kit from the Missouri Community Action Network, so the local United Way can conduct more simulations.

“We are hoping to continue this so more folks can participate in the future,” she said.

For more information or to inquire about a future simulation, call United Way at 507-929-2273 or email unitedway@unitedwayswmn.org.