An Experience of Poverty to Raise Awareness for Students

by | Apr 27, 2019 | News, Poverty: Analysis and Responses

Seeking a better understanding of poverty in the United States, 84 St. John’s University students, faculty, administrators, and staff participated in “The Poverty Experience,” a simulation of the financial hardships faced every day by millions of Americans.

Held on Thursday, February 21, in the D’Angelo Center on the Queens, NY, campus, the hour-long simulation involved activities in which students were cast as different “families” living in poverty; while faculty, administrators, and others assumed the roles of various organizations, businesses, and community members with whom the families would interact.

“As a Vincentian at a Vincentian University, this poverty simulation is a powerful experience that challenges and changes perspectives,” said Sr. Patricia Evanick, D.C., Campus Minister of Faith, Formation, and Leadership.

Presented in collaboration with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Long Island, as well as student groups Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Ambassadors and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the event is designed to strengthen understanding and empathy toward those living at, or below, the Federal Poverty Level. According to the United States Census Bureau, the poverty rate in 2017 was 12.3 percent.

“The Poverty Experience was originally developed as a learning tool by the Reform Organization of Welfare Education Association,” said Terri Zenobio, Director of Vincentian Services, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Long Island. “It sought to move citizens beyond compassion to an active commitment to work toward social justice.”

Students, acting as families with varying size and scope, were given different budgets and tasked with providing for the basic necessities and shelter for one month, which was represented over the course of one hour by four, 15-minute-long “weeks.”

Seated around the perimeter of the room were individuals who represented different community resources and services, such as the bank, a food pantry, an employment office, a pawn broker, a grocery store, the welfare office, and a public school. This virtual community also included a police officer, a utility collector, and a landlord.

Throughout the event, the “families” were confronted with different challenges that any household in the United States could face, such as the loss of a job or a medical emergency.

For example, a student given the role of a job seeker could suddenly face barriers that would make going on an interview difficult, such as having to pick up a sick child from school or needing to visit social services to clear up a clerical error—all while depending on public transportation. Students also saw firsthand how the impact of such issues could be compounded by a lack of financial resources.

“I took on the role of a young single mom, six months pregnant, with two small children, ages two and three,” said Caitlin Neir, a junior studying Adolescent Education.

“Never in my life have I felt so alone and frustrated with the world. What put me at a loss for words was the fact that this scenario was actually someone’s reality.”

During the exercise, many students had to live out an all-too-common scenario for families living in poverty—having to choose between paying the electric bill to keep the lights on or buying food to feed the family.

“The Poverty Simulation gave students, administrators, faculty, and staff a chance to develop empathy for those who face poverty every day,” said Joann Heaney-Hunter, Ph.D., ’78C, ’81G, Associate Professor, Theology and Religious Studies, who portrayed a schoolteacher at the simulation. “I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difficult circumstances some people experience, and the challenge of our call to respond as Vincentians.”

Senior Anna Evseev, a CRS Ambassador, participated in a similar simulation while doing advocacy work in Washington, DC. “I could not even get though half of the tasks,” she reflected. “If you work long hours at a full-time job, by the time you get to the social services office, they may be closed for the day. It shows you just how difficult it is to live in poverty.”

Source: St. John’s University News