Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Simulation aims to raise awareness of poverty

by on May 03, 2014 10:59 AM

If we are lucky, sometimes we’re given the rare opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania students as well as other community members found themselves in that position Friday during a poverty simulation held at IUP’s Hadley Union Building.

“The objective of the experience is to sensitize us to the day-to-day realities of life faced by people with low incomes,” said Cynthia Moore, director of community education for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, “and to motivate us to become involved in activities which help to reduce poverty in our country.”

Sponsored by the sociology department’s Sociology of Family course along with the food bank and the Zion Lutheran Church, the simulation allowed participants to live the life of a low-income family for a few hours. Participants were assigned to one of several families, and within those families, each had a role. Participants were mothers, fathers or children. Some had disabilities or addictions to deal with. Some families had more money than others, some had access to transportation or some were employed.

Surrounding the families were various community resources and establishments. Resources included a place of employment, a social service office and a homeless shelter. Establishments included community norms such as police services, a bank, school and utilities.

“Based on the strategies the family comes up with, they will begin to go throughout the community and access the resources that are available to them,” Moore said.

The scenario was broken into four 15-minute segments, each representing a day in a week for each of the families. Some of the objectives faced by the families were issues like making sure there was transportation to work, feeding themselves or buying clothes.

“Dynamics of how the simulation are played out are based on the knowledge base of the people participating,” Moore said.

She explained that the simulation had been developed by individuals who themselves lived a low-income lifestyle. The simulation was then trademarked by the Missouri Association for Community Action and has been performed all over the country.

At the beginning of the simulation, people quickly took advantage of ways to get money fast, utilizing the community’s pawn shop and quick-cash loan establishment. The social services office also filled up quickly, while those who were secure in their full- or part-time jobs made their way to work.

As the event continued, however, dynamics began to change. The reality of families living paycheck to paycheck set in as sources for quick cash dried up. Many applied for work, but the job offerings were few. Transportation resources also disappeared quickly, forcing families to seek out each other for carpooling opportunities. Some families were evicted from their homes for failing to pay rent and had to find help at the homeless shelter.

The event was also tempered by “luck of the draw” cards, indicating a benefit or hardship that unexpectedly came up for a family. These could be in several different forms, such a sudden rebate that would add to a family’s income, or a bad purchase that added more costs to an already tight budget.

Moore indicated at the beginning of the event that “desperate times will call for desperate measures,” and this became very apparent when crime began to infiltrate the community. The pawn shop was robbed twice, and a few community members were “mugged” at gunpoint.

Community resources were also staggered at various points throughout the event. After the pawn shop was robbed, it was closed for a short period. Those who relied on the shop as a source of income were forced to re-evaluate their strategy. Social services closed for an entire segment, and families had to find vouchers and transportation passes elsewhere.

By the end of the simulation, about half the families said they were better off than when they started, while half said they were worse.

“The struggle is real,” said Monica Green, a junior sociology major who ran the pawn shop. “People are trying everything they can to get some money. They’re willing to do whatever they can.”

“It’s a rat race!” said Shannon Lawer, who works for state Rep. Dave Reed, of Indiana. “It’s also very much like real life.”

“The experience was … like Whack-A-Mole,” said Donald Lancaster, Indiana Borough council member. “You would get something accomplished, then there were bumps in the road.”

“There are a lot of false assumptions with our society today that people with benefits actually get off easier and have an easier life than those without benefits,” said Laura Cross, a senior psychology major. “I think it’s a lot harder because some of the benefits are just minimal.”

Even Indiana Mayor George Hood, who observed the event, said he was “impressed.”

The simulation was brought together by IUP sociology professor Melissa Swauger and Amber Book, Indiana representative for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

“It was organic to involve IUP in any kind of efforts for fighting hunger because it’s such a big organization and such an important part of the community here,” Book said.

The simulation was the culmination of the Sociology of Family course’s Hunger Awareness Week, which began Monday. Nonperishable food items were collected all week long to be delivered to the Zion Lutheran Church on Sixth Street.

PHOTO: Steve Borodycia, a sophomore safety science major at IUP, visited the booth of Monica Green, a junior sociology major, during a poverty simulation Friday at the Hadley Union Building. Green was working at “Big Dave’s Pawnshop,” where Borodycia was “selling” his possessions for cash. (Jamie Empfield/Gazette)

Jeremy Hartley is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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