United Way’s Poverty Simulation

After reviewing our curriculum, the team and I realized we were reflecting a certain kind of learner. One who represented our worldview more than the diverse learners we see in the classroom every day. We needed inspiration. We needed to see what other organizations were doing to incorporate different perspectives and ways of learning. I’m excited to share one step we took, which was attending United Way’s Poverty Simulation.  

The Simulation

The simulation was designed for people to experience what it is like to live in poverty. As someone who has never lived in poverty or been through a similar simulation, I had no idea what to expect. It ended up being one of the best hands-on learning experiences I have ever participated in. I didn’t just learn new ways to teach; I had experiences that changed my perspective of poverty.

When participants arrive, they sign in and are randomly given a character to “be” for the day. I was a young mother with a disabled child. I lived with my father and grandmother, and we shared expenses and responsibilities. We learned this by exploring the package we were given at our seats. Inside the package, we had some money, bus tickets, SINs, and information about our current living expenses.

Participants sit with their families in the middle of the room. Along the room’s perimeter are volunteers who are in charge of different services (school, employment, social services, pawn shop, government agency, child care, etc.). The host welcomes everyone and provides a brief description of the simulation. You aren’t given much information before the simulation begins. Every 15 minutes is equivalent to a week in “real life.” And let me tell you, those minutes go fast and slow all at the same time.

My family couldn’t get food until the third week. Something always came up. Forget about going to community college or getting a paycheque. I spent most of my time trying to figure out child care, and when that didn’t work out, I had to leave him at home by himself. I felt forced to make uncomfortable decisions, and I was seriously in a cold sweat 99% of the time. The pressure was real! Random people walked around selling “drugs” (i.e., splenda packets) and there were even robbers. It was terrifying because you never knew what you were coming home to.

The Experience

I still can’t believe the impact of the simulation. Of course, I will never understand poverty the way people who live in real poverty do. But the experience gave me empathy and a better sense of what people in poverty experience every day. One of the best parts of the experience was the breakout discussions and the room host.

After the simulation ended, the families got into groups of about 20 people. A volunteer led the discussion, which was so powerful! Afterwards, we all got together (there were hundreds of us), and the room host went into more depth about the power of the experience we just shared. Some people shared their experience of living in poverty, or stories they had heard.

Up until that point, I had found the entire simulation energizing. My blood was bumping and adrenaline peaked. But afterwards, I felt completely exhausted. I couldn’t believe how much the experience influenced me somatically. It was all I could do to go home and process the morning’s events.

The Takeaways

It would be an amazing experience to design a simulation one day. But that doesn’t mean I can’t incorporate some of the lessons I learned from that day to the present:

  • Understand where learners are starting. I realized that in some of our financial literacy courses, we share strategies that don’t apply to learners. In the poverty simulation, I liked that the organizers didn’t assume we knew anything about poverty. They also didn’t over-explain. Instead, they just let us try things out and learn from our choices. It would be interesting to give our learners an opportunity to “build” the curriculum. Are there financial concepts most people are interested in and are relevant to where they are in life? Why not start there to make learning relevant?
  • Connect learning to real life. Any content can become stale, but e-Learning especially can become cooke cutter and dry very easily. Even though I have never lived in poverty, I still had background knowledge on most services available at the simulation. And when I didn’t know something, I had a team to answer my questions. I’m going to work on building shared understanding among learners by not dominating the conversation (or the screen) with content.
  • “Guide” students and debrief when necessary. I loved that the simulation had a host for the room. When she did share stories and research, it didn’t feel intrusive. It felt like the perfect time to share and debrief. People were ready to ask questions, and if they weren’t, they could bring them up during the breakout discussions. Having these opportunities to reflect were really important, and I think would strengthen my curriculum.
  • Don’t do the learning for students. We discredit learners when we try to learn and process for them. We may also assume they are processing the same way we are, and have the same ideas about the topic. It is far more interesting and enlightening to support learners in their self-discovery.

This is all I can think of for now, but I know that I learned so much more. Sometimes the most impactful experiences are the ones we can’t quite put into words.


Train Image from Unsplash.com: https://unsplash.com/photos/BXwbfuM0cdk

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