Spotlight Exclusives

What It’s Like to Be Poor: Lessons from a Poverty Simulation

Heather Lockard, Missouri Association for Community Action Heather Lockard, Missouri Association for Community Action, posted on

Even in one of the richest countries in the world, poverty remains a seemingly intractable problem. Still, the stories of those struggling to get by are often overlooked.

While roughly 47 million people live below the federal poverty line, Americans often remain far removed from the economic hardships so many are facing. For those who have not experienced poverty firsthand, it can be difficult to understand the challenges and barriers that families experience. It can be even harder for some to understand why individuals in poverty make the choices they make.

That’s where the Community Action Poverty Simulation comes in. The simulation – developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action – can be used to educate communities about the realities of living in poverty.

During the simulation, participants role-play the lives of low-income families, from single parents caring for their children, to families experiencing job loss, to senior citizens living on a fixed income. The task of each family is to provide food, shelter, and other basic necessities while interacting with various community resources and dealing with the day-to-day problems that arise when resources are limited.

Although it uses role play and props, the simulation is not a game and is based on real family scenarios. Participants are given characters with detailed backstories and must do their best to navigate the challenges these individuals face.

Ann Arber and Isaiah Isma are just a few of the possible roles featured in the simulation. Ann faces the daily struggle to keep a roof over her head and her children fed. Like many individuals in poverty, Ann has a job but is still struggling due to unforeseen circumstances. Isaiah has his GED but spent some time in jail and is struggling to make ends meet and support a child and help the girlfriend he lives with.

The Community Action Poverty Simulation tool enables participants to view poverty from different viewpoints in an experiential setting. It’s different when you are the one faced with untenable choices. Do you pay the title loan or rent? Do you buy that medication or go without so you can eat?  One recent participant has a sister in poverty and told us, “This simulation gave me a whole new perspective, a greater appreciation for the choices she has made and an increased respect for my little sister—and for those just like her.”

The simulation also empowers low-income volunteers by allowing them an opportunity to interact with leaders in their community, bringing the experience full circle. Those volunteers have the opportunity to act as the community resources in the simulation.

The Community Action Poverty Simulation is a profoundly moving experience which requires people to think about the interrelated aspects of poverty and identify strategies to address those issues in their community. Thousands of nonprofits, universities, businesses, hospitals, and other organizations across the county are using this tool to engage communities to be part of the solution.

Importantly, the simulation doesn’t just help individuals better understand poverty—it also gives them an opportunity to debrief with each other about the experience and brainstorm ideas that would create impact and inspire change in the local community. It’s a chance to find ways to improve the community for all people.

Thankfully not all Americans will experience poverty firsthand. But through the simulation, individuals and communities have the chance to more fully empathize with those in need, and work to develop solutions to one of society’s most pressing problems.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Heather Lockard is executive director of the Missouri Association for Community Action (MACA), a statewide association of the 19 nonprofit Community Action Agencies in Missouri and part of the national Community Action Network.  

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