Western Michigan University simulation workshops raise awareness of poverty's ill effects on community
Five Western Michigan University social-work students were put in the shoes of the fictional poverty-stricken Aber family on Oct. 19.
With one unemployed parent, a pregnant 16-year-old daughter and a nearly drained bank account, the family members had to figure out how to pay their bills, get to work and feed their other two small children, an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, with their limited resources.
The students, along with about 40 other social-work students, were taking part in the Poverty Reduction Initiative’s Poverty Simulation Workshop to see what it is like to be an average family living in poverty.
The students were given packets of information about their new identities and had to make their way through a month of dealing with banks, social services and the police, among other agencies. The students dealt with volunteers playing the roles of people working at such sites.
The students posing as the Abers budgeted as they could with the information given to them. They went to a loan center where they had to take out a $50 loan with a 30 percent interest rate.
When Mrs. Aber was late getting to work because she was getting a transportation pass, her employer put her on probation. Meanwhile, Mr. Aber could get only $25 for a $100 stereo at a pawnshop and was given a notice that he had $500 in outstanding loans from a bank. The Aber children all came home from school that day with school-supply needs, and the family received a malnutrition warning because it had failed to get groceries.
“At the end, some are left in the hole and some maintain,” said Barbara Barton, assistant professor of social work at WMU.
Barton said this is the second time that social-work students have participated in the simulation at WMU, which helps them gain empathy and understanding.
“The people who think they know about poverty” are the ones who should take part in the simulation, Barton said.
Barton was asked by the Poverty Reduction Initiative to research the effects of the simulation.
She talked to 144 participants for six to nine months after their simulation experiences to see what impact the experiences had on them. Barton has finished the first phase of the evaluation — studying attitude change — and is in the process of evaluating the behavioral impact.
Barton had six groups of participants take questionnaires, before and after the simulation. The groups were asked whether they agree or disagree with statements including “People living in poverty do not value education” and “Poor people participate in illegal activities.”
Barton found that many of the participants had different opinions after the simulation and that virtually no people felt “undecided” about any of the statements after the simulation.
Maggie Hiatt, event coordinator for the Poverty Reduction Initiative, said the organization has conducted about 40 workshops during the past four years involving more than 2,000 people.
The volunteers who play roles such as the pawnshop owner, a police officer and Department of Human Services agents are all living in poverty or have experienced poverty, adding some realism to the workshop, Hiatt said.
“The most common outcomes are feelings of empathy and realizing that poverty isn’t something that happens to someone else. It can happen to anyone,” Hiatt said.