Simulation Exposes MGA Students to Realities of Poverty

Author: Lee Greenway
Posted: Wednesday, December 4, 2019 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Health and Natural Sciences | Pressroom | School of Arts and Letters | Faculty/Staff | Students

Cochran, GA


At first glance, it looks like a particularly complicated board game, or maybe a tabletop role-playing game – tables covered in play money, pages describing specific scenarios, special tokens representing physical objects and decks of “random occurrence” cards.  For the 48 Middle Georgia State University (MGA) students who took seats at these tables, however, the afternoon wasn’t fun and games, but rather an eye-opening look into what it’s like to live below the poverty line.

On Thursday, November 14, MGA’s School of Health and Natural Sciences presented the Poverty Simulation, a group exercise in which participants live out a simulation of one month of life for a low-income family.  The MGA students who took part, divided in “families” for the duration of the event, were required to manage their funds, provide for their families’ needs, navigate social services, and avoid legal troubles through the course of four 15-minute “weeks” with a budget only a few dollars above what’s considered to be the poverty line in the United States.

“I’m here to get some perspective; a better understanding of what these families go through,” said Madison Weeks, a first-year Occupational Therapy Assistant student, whose role in the simulation was a member of the Fuentes “family.”

At a nearby table, the Boling “family” discussed how they planned to tackle the first week’s challenges, and agreed that they’d signed up to expand their understanding of those less fortunate than themselves.  Matthew Crockett, senior Respiratory Therapy student, said that he was taking part in the simulation to not only gain perspective, but also to “work on money management skills.” 

“We want to educate our students, and bring awareness of the issues,” said Betsy McDaniel, chair of the University’s Rehabilitation Sciences department and one of the event’s organizers.  “This can help get rid of a lot of the stereotypes of people who live in poverty – for instance, quite a few families who live below the poverty line have jobs.”

Accordingly, so did a number of the simulation participants – who were required to report to their “jobs” within the first three minutes of each week, and then remain there for no less than seven of each week’s 15 minutes in order to receive their wages.  Failure to arrive to work on time would result in termination and loss of vital income.  Of course, getting to work – or anywhere else – required a “transportation pass,” a small card that represented the cost of maintaining the vehicle, taking public transportation, or the time lost in walking to or from a location.

The simulation’s detail didn’t end there. Families were required to provide food for their families, sourced from either the supermarket (a table where “money” was exchanged for “food” tickets), or from a local governmental or faith-based charity.  Families with children had to get their school-aged children to their classes on time; infants and toddlers needed to be in daycare if the rest of the family was out of the “house” (away from their table).  Utilities and rent or mortgage payments were due during a particular “week” of the simulation, and eviction or foreclosure awaited families who couldn’t make their payments on time.

For those who needed a little extra cash, a “pawn shop” stood ready to buy jewelry, electronics, and even household appliances, usually for far less than the item’s actual cash value.  For those in even more dire straits, a shadowy figure roamed the “neighborhood” (gymnasium floor), offering participants a chance to make money fast by selling his product for him, with sugar packets standing in for illegal drugs.  Of course, if the “police officer” – another MGA simulation organizer equipped with a siren, badge, and handcuffs – caught any participant with any of the packets on them, they were whisked away quickly to “jail” where they would sit out the rest of the week’s activities.

The introduction of criminal activity to the simulation is very intentional, said Dr. Tara Underwood, Dean of the School of Health and Natural Sciences.  “Sometimes, good people make bad decisions out of desperation.  This simulation is about survival with very limited resources.”

The event was brought to MGA after Underwood learned about the poverty simulation at an Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Board meeting where she has served as Secretary for the last several years.  Medical students at Augusta University have also participated in the poverty simulation.  The simulation itself was developed by the Missouri Community Action Network, and about a month and a half of planning went into bringing the Cochran event to fruition.  Underwood and McDaniel hope to bring the simulation to other MGA campuses in the future, starting with Macon – a city ranked as having the fourth-highest level of “concentrated poverty” in the United States.

By the second “week” of the simulation, the realities of living in poverty began to settle in for the participants.  A few paused in their activities to explain how things were going for their “family,” and nearly all said the same thing – “This is stressful,” said Jasmine King, a senior student in Respiratory Therapy who was head of the Boling “family.”  In the past week, her “daughter” had sacrificed a precious transportation pass just so the family could make it to the store to buy groceries. 

Already one participant was in “jail” for abandoning an infant child at daycare.  “I just ran out of time,” he said as he watched “family services” lead away his two younger “siblings,” “and so now I’ll have to figure something out.”

Heather Dorman, a member of the Occupational Therapy faculty, volunteered at the event, and served as the operator of the daycare facility.  “We’ve been talking about healthcare discrepancy in our classes,” she said, “and this makes students aware of what that really means, helps them see patients as a whole person.”  Looking around the room, she added “It helps to see how quickly life can become chaos.” 

By the end of the simulation, that chaos had become a reality for most of the participants. 

 “It was definitely a learning experience,” said Ryan McClendon, a second-semester Nursing student.  “I think this could help people not be so quick to jump to conclusions when they see someone who is living in poverty.”

The Poverty Simulation ended with a call to action. There are many agencies in the Middle Georgia area that offer services for those who are struggling to overcome a poverty situation. Students were encouraged to take the time to donate to a food bank, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or contact agencies such as the Middle Georgia Community Action Agency to discover ways that they can become involved in the fight against poverty.

Weeks, whose “family” ended up homeless due to their inability to secure the necessary help in paying their housing costs, agrees.  “My experience gave me a completely new view of just how difficult it is to be in poverty.”  Her new perspective, she said, has helped her view of her community.  “We have the ability to help people, but it all starts with us. We can’t sit back and wait for someone else to take care of it. Take initiative and help grow your community.”