Simulating poverty

Southwest Health and Human Services workers learn how to live on limited resources

Photo by Karin Elton Michael Thompson, a social worker from Southwest Health and Human Services in Marshall, was a teacher in a role-play exercise designed to help people be more empathetic to and better serve low-income families.

By Karin Elton

MARSHALL — What’s it like to be poor?

People whose job it is to help the less fortunate got a chance to find out how to try to navigate through life on limited resources.

Southwest Health and Human Services sponsored a “poverty simulation” Monday for the more than 200 employees of the six-county agency (Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Pipestone, Redwood and Rock). “We had to break the simulation into two sessions to accommodate all of the staff,” said Lynn Babcock, SHHS child support officer.

“We had our first simulation on May 1. The simulation is designed to increase our staff’s sensitivity to poverty issues the populations we serve experience.”

Dawn Schroeder, a United Way of Southwest Minnesota board member, led the session in which people were divided into families.

During the simulation, attendees role-play a month in poverty and get an idea of low-income families’ lives. A “month” was divided into four 15-minute weeks in which the household heads had to navigate getting to work, getting children to school or daycare, keeping everyone regularly fed and clothed, keeping the utilities on and paying rent or mortgage.

Carol Biren of Southwest Health and Human Services said the class is a requirement. She received the training in Luverne last year and this year volunteered to be one of the 20 people who act as members of entities that clients might interact with such as schools, hospitals, banks, utility companies, grocery stores, quick cash businesses, pawn shops and law enforcement.

Participants randomly select a name tag which tells them what their role in a family is and what the family make-up is.

“It could be a mom, dad and two kids,” said Biren. “It could be a situation where somebody is disabled, or mom or dad just lost their job. They have income deadlines, maybe one of their vehicles broke down, maybe they have to go to the grocery store.”

The participants have to figure it out based on the parameters given them in the simulation.

“It really makes you think, ‘what would I do?'” she said. “You need to pay rent or feed your family. What are you going to do? It really makes you think what people are going through.”

Schroeder said poverty has a “snowball effect. One bad decision can make something bigger and bigger.”

At the end of the three-hour day, having gone through a “month” of poverty, participants responded that they felt anxiety having to juggle so many things at once just to survive each day.

“It was a struggle,” one participant said.

Schroeder said the anxiety of trying to survive filters down to the children.

“As parents we think we’re hiding our worries, but they’re picking up on it,” she said.

Ann Abraham, a SHHS public health nurse volunteered to portray a Community Action staff member.

“I was unaware how complex it is to live day to day in poverty,” Abraham said.