Poverty doesn’t end when the whistle blows

Each participant was instructed to select a chair away from anyone they knew. The chairs were set up in clusters of two to four seats, representing a family with low income and no full-time employment — a reality for more than 15 million U.S. citizens.

On Monday, seventy-five people attended Grand Valley State University’s second consecutive poverty simulation. The event, which was a part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations, was sponsored by the Women’s Center, Black Student Union and Access of West Michigan.

“Participants of the simulation are able to experience the daily challenges of living in poverty, from trying to stretch every dollar to not having enough time to access needed community resources,” said Brittany Dernberger, assistant director of the Women’s Center.

She added that the event was held on MLK Day because of his Poor People’s Campaign.

“The poverty simulations bring awareness about economic justice to GVSU’s commemoration of MLK,” Dernberger said. “King is well known for his work around racial equity but less known for his advocacy about poverty and economic justice.”

During the simulation, each family was given a packet that contained their profile. The families ranged from a single parent household to an elderly couple with health issues. One single-parent household consisted of a 25-year-old mother with two young children, one healthy and one with asthma.

Although these families differed in structure, they all lived in poverty. When the whistle blew, the week began. Each week was a fifteen-minute session with the total simulation being one hour.

About ten different tables were set up around the room representing community resources such as a grocery store, health clinic, bank and caseworker office. The immediate goals were for participants to feed their families and get a job to supplement their meager income. The ultimate goal was to pay their rent by the end of the month.

Many participants spent their weeks waiting in line at the employment office and others crowded the health clinic for a sick family member. The families who did not pay their rent were evicted and sent to the homeless shelter for the duration of the simulation.

After the workshop, attendees broke into small groups to discuss their experiences and reactions to their temporary life in poverty. Many students said they felt frustrated and angry because they did not have enough time to do everything they needed. They said they were discouraged because they could not get a job or find anyone they trusted enough to watch their children.

Many admitted to cheating or stealing in order to provide food or other necessities. Overall, the participants said they had a better understanding and an increased awareness of how the poor live today.

Brenda Dalecke, poverty education coordinator at Access of West Michigan, helped facilitate the event. Dalecke reminded students that the simulation is not a game. She added that one in six Americans currently receive food stamps.

“At GVSU, it’s hard because we think we live in poverty as college students, but we don’t know what it’s really like,” a student in attendance said. “We don’t know what it’s like to make ends meet.”

[email protected]