Role Reversal: Poverty Simulation at Augustana Helps Community Leaders See Through Their Clients’ Eyes

In conjuction with Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, community leaders attend school with Ms. Grumpy as part of a poverty simulation.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, more than 43 million Americans live below the poverty level and 1 in 5 children in the U.S. live in poverty.

Perhaps nobody knows the statistics better than the community leaders who gathered together Thursday at the Froiland Science Complex. While many of them see and help people who live in poverty each and every day – whether it be through the Helpline Center, Sioux Empire Homeless Coalition, or the South Dakota Department of Social Services – it’s difficult even for them to understand what their clients go through.

In light of Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week (Nov. 16 - 24), Michelle Gierach, assistant professor of nursing, tried to give them some insight – even for just a couple of hours. As part of a poverty simulation, Gierach assigned each person to a family role with certain incomes, priorities and problems – roles based on real life family profiles. But not even these profile represent the worst off.

“Your family unit is struggling, but it does not represent the lower end of the poverty spectrum,” Gierach instructed the group. “Many of your families do not, technically speaking, fall below the poverty line.”

Each family had to navigate through day-to-day life, or in this case, to difference stations. They had to choose between going to home, work, school, social services, community outreach, the grocery store, bank, doctor, pharmacy, pawn shop, homeless shelter and even jail.  But first they had to find a way to get there with a lot of obstacles in their way. They had only so much gas, cash, transportation, food and time. If they didn’t have those things – just like in real life – they had to find a way to get them. When they did find their way, sometimes it would be too late. The station would close for the day or just couldn’t help them.

You could genuinely hear and feel the frustration in the room.

Nicolle Olson, a counselor and employment specialist at the Volunteers of America Veterans Service Center, said, “It’s hard to figure out where to start. You can literally waste a whole day of your time trying to get help, not getting help.”

Olson played the role of a 17-year-old named Franco. Franco's mother couldn’t find a job and his father had left them. They were struggling financially and he was using and dealing drugs for cash after he found out he was expecting a child.

“Often people have this misconception that poor people or unemployed people are just sitting at home watching t.v. and hoping to get free things and that is not how it really works,” said Olson.

Olson or Franco ultimately ended up in jail.

Franco’s mother says sadly she was relieved, “I felt like I abandoned my children. The police officer came over, and I eventually said, 'please take them' because I know they had a place to stay. I know they’re going to be fed, and I don’t have to worry.”

Geirach brought the Missouri Community Action Poverty Simulation to Augustana several years ago. The simulation materials were paid for through a grant. Nursing students will participate in the same simulation within the next few months. Geirach told the group that the students tend to take a different approach to the simulation.

Geirach explained to the group, “It’s interesting that when I run this with students so different from you guys. What happens is the first two weeks – social services, nobody goes. Nobody goes to over community action. They’re all at the pawn shop and quick cash. It was a  reverse with you guys. You all started at the agencies, but then realized, 'well there’s only so much that they can help me with, now I have to go in reverse order'."

Many of the parent participants said they felt like they weren’t providing enough and the participants who played children said they felt helpless.

Geirach says the simulation serves as an important reminder to the community leaders.

“We have to remember to put yourself in their shoes. How can I help them?" Geirach reiterated.

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