Community West Foundation: Poverty Simulation Creates ‘Real Life’ Scenario for Participants

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Mary O’Shea, Director of Advocacy, Greater Cleveland Foodbank and David T. Dombrowiak, President & CEO, Community West Foundation.

Mary O’Shea, Director of Advocacy, Greater Cleveland Foodbank and David T. Dombrowiak, President & CEO, Community West Foundation.

A Poverty Simulation is a unique group exercise that enables participants to learn about the day to day realities of life with a shortage of money and an abundance of stress.

Community West Foundation, with the help of the Greater Cleveland Foodbank and Lutheran West High School, teamed up to host a Poverty Simulation at Lutheran West High on Nov. 14.

The poverty simulation experience 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. It is not a game. It is an exercise that sensitizes participants to the realities faced by low-income people.

In the simulation, participants assume the roles of up to 26 different families facing poverty.

Some families are newly unemployed, some recently deserted by the “breadwinner,” some are senior citizens receiving Disability or Retirement benefits or grandparents raising their grandchildren. Still others are homeless, and some are recipients of social supports like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly AFDC), either with or without additional earned income.

William Baker, Chair, Community West Foundation with Board Members, Henry Jacques and Christopher Harrington.

William Baker, Chair, Community West Foundation with Board Members, Henry Jacques and Christopher Harrington.

The task of the “families” is to provide for basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.”

“I love the simulation because participants forget about themselves and whatever judgments they might have about low-income people. For a short time they experience the stress of families with limited resources,” said Mary O’Shea, Director of Advocacy, Greater Cleveland Foodbank.

“By the third ‘week’ of the simulation participants are running to try to get to the bank or the store. Security is tenuous for the people these roles represent,” added O’Shea. “Many of them are a flat tire or a high heating bill away from not being able to feed their families. The simulation provides that worthwhile insight, and people are often grateful for the experience.”

The simulation took place in the Lutheran West High gym with the “families” seated in groups in the center. Tables around the gym represented community resources and services. These services included a bank, super center, Community Action Agency, employer, utility company, pawn broker, grocery, social service agency, faith-based agency, payday and title loan facility, mortgage company, school, and child care center.

“Participating in the poverty simulation gave great insight into the challenges, struggles and frustration some of our neighbors face daily. We were delighted to include students from Lutheran West High School who gained a greater understanding of the needs of the underserved.” – David T. Dombrowiak, President and CEO, Community West Foundation.

Lutheran West students staffed the resource tables and assumed the roles of police officer and an “illegal activities” person.

When it was over, participants shared their experiences. “I never realized how much time is spent just waiting in line at these agencies,” said one participant. “We had to choose between medicine and food,” said another. “I wasted a bus ticket going to the wrong agency and had to walk home,” shared a third.

All agreed that the exercise reinforced the realities of living in poverty and how it feels to be “on the other side of the table.” It is a lesson many in our community live as a reality every day.

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