Simulation contributes unique insight into poverty

Sophomores Monique Dailey (left), social work major, accompanies Stacey Hanburry, learning foundations major, as she is taken to “jail” during the poverty simulation event in the Carl Grant Center. | Photo by Beth Spain

By Alli Hill

For a divorced, single mother with three children and a part-time job at night in the hospital, bills are high and money is low. This scenario is only a glimpse into one life stuck in the cycle of poverty.

Each year, the Social Work Department puts on a Poverty Simulation. This year the event took place on Sept. 14 in the Carl Grant Events Center.

Students walked into a hushed room with round tables lining the perimeter and groups of chairs huddled in the middle. Each group of one to four chairs represented different family units. The families were given a blue packet containing all of its information. Each family had different stories and hardships, but they all had one thing in common: poverty.

Amy Elizer, extension agent for the University of Tennessee, led the event.

“This is a simulation, not a game,” Elizer said. “Poverty is not a game when there are 36.5 million citizens living in poverty.”

Each year Elizer puts on the event at Union with Mary Anne Poe, professor of social work, Bachelor of Social Work program director and director of the Center for Just and Caring Communities.

Elizer began by explaining the contents of the packets and the round tables surrounding the room. Each table represented a different facilitator including a school, pawnshop, police department, quick cash shop, health department, food pantry, jail, grocery store, utility company, mortgage company, welfare department and others.

The groups enacted what four weeks of living in poverty would be like by visiting each table to take care of basic life needs. Transportation tickets had to be given at every visit to a table, costing $1. The tickets had to be purchased at the quick cash shop, which sometimes charged $2, and did not always give the correct quantity.

The month was broken down into four 15-minute “weeks” in which the families had to face the challenges of everyday life. The children had to go to school each week, costing one transportation ticket per child. The utilities and mortgage had to be paid, food had to be purchased, items had to be pawned, food stamps had to be received — all with continual lines in which to wait.

The workers were rude, and money and time ran out quickly. The children got into trouble while the parents were out working and paying the bills. Many groups went without food or without paying their rent.

After an hour of taking a glimpse into the impoverished life, the students were given a chance to sum up their experiences in one word. “Powerless,” “abandoned,” “alone” and “afraid” were just a few of the descriptions given.

Zach Preston, sophomore TESL major, said he felt helpless during the simulation.

“I was a 17-year-old high school graduate looking for a job,” Preston said. “I felt like I was backed into a corner with no way of survival unless I stole things. I was amazed at how quickly people change their morals to provide for their families.”

Elizer said she has learned that people’s backgrounds determine everything.

“I have only ever known the way of the middle-class life of having a job and everything else falling into place,” Elizer said. “Everyone’s life situation is not like yours. What our background is makes a difference in everything.”

Poe said she wants students to walk away from the event with a better understanding of the complexity of poverty.

“I want the students to experience the frustration and difficulty of (being a person) with few resources,” Poe said. “People in poverty make personal choices, but the system makes it difficult for them.”

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The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.


  1. This would be a good thing for classes to do in high school to help students who aren’t in poverty (and those that are) realize that the post high school choices they make will help determine if the cycle continues in their own life, if they can rise above it (with hard work you can rise above your raising), or if they will enter into it. Yes, the system makes it difficult, but not impossible, and the one thing young people in this situation need is hope. Perhaps this experiment will push some of the students who participated to work to help change “the system”. Good article, Alli.

  2. Thanks Mrs. Jana! I wish I had experienced this event sooner in life. It would definitely be a good thing for schools to start doing!

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