‘A different kind of perspective’
The Musikfest Cafe at the ArtsQuest Center was alive with movement and conversation as close to 90 participants and volunteers role-played the lives of low-income individuals and families on the morning of April 19. The Poverty Simulation, hosted by the Volunteer Center, Moravian College and Leadership Lehigh Valley, was offered as a way to raise awareness and begin discussions within the community of how to combat issues of poverty.
When participants arrived, each were instructed to take one of the upside-down facing name tags on the registration table. Each name tag assigned participants a name, gender and age that would determine where in the neighborhood they lived and what their individual situation would be. Participants were asked to represent the person featured on their name tag for the duration of the exercise.
The simulation itself took place over the course of approximately an hour and a half, representing a month in the life of a low-income individual or family. Each week was represented by fifteen minute intervals, during which participants had to go to work or school, pay bills, buy groceries and try to survive in the lives of their assigned characters. The scenarios differed by individual, with some owning furniture, houses or cars and others beginning their month in the homeless shelter, needing to find a way out.
“I want to stress very much that this simulation is not a game. I know it’s going to seem like that because you’re holding babies that don’t cry, you’re playing with fake money and you’re handing in a transportation pass and there’s going to be a long line, but this is not a game,” said simulation facilitator Gillian Sharkey, Director of Civic Engagement at Moravian College. “For 43 million people in the U.S. that are living in poverty, this is just a snapshot of what they go through every day.”
According to Sharkey, the goal of this exercise was for participants to represent “real people, real lives and real challenges.” For many, this was a difficult task.
During the wrap-up session following the end of the simulation, Sharkey asked participants questions about their experiences. Among these included whether or not families were fed every week, how many families were evicted from their homes, how many were able to pay their bills and what other struggles were encountered. Although these questions centered on necessities, many admitted that groceries were not purchased, rent and utilities were not paid and many were evicted.
“I work in the field, but for other people, they always say, ‘Well, you wouldn’t be poor, you wouldn’t need services if you just worked a full-time job, if you just did what you’re supposed to do’,” said Pamela Lewis, simulation participant and manager of Community Partnerships at New Bethany Ministries. “That’s the false reality that really just bothers me time and time again, because [for] these people, this is real. All of this is really what I see every single day, people trying, people showing up, but still feeling like they’re failing.”
Many participants expressed similar feelings upon the close of the exercise. Stephen Perun, assistant vice president of Commercial Lending at Peoples Security Bank and Trust, said, “I knew living in poverty was tough, but I didn’t realize how tough it truly can be on a person. Trying to do the simplest tasks of everyday life was so much more complicated. I came away with two main things: One being a greater appreciation of my life, and [the second], what can I do to make a difference in people’s lives and help them to try and move out of poverty?”
When asked about the value of running these simulations, Sharkey said, “It’s really providing a different opportunity to see a different kind of perspective. … My biggest thing for this is I want someone, there were 66 people here today, even if two decide to go to Sixth Street Shelter or they go to New Bethany and they put these feeling that’s in their gut right now into action, that’s what I want. So whether that’s donating food and clothes, whether that’s donating their time, whether that’s even trying to be on a think tank to make the organization more profitable, I want action from it in whatever way people are moved to give back.”