Could you survive a month in poverty? Do you have what it takes to get through a life stretched thin by time and lack of financial backing? Are you aware of how challenging it is to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty?

SNAP served the host for what is known as a “poverty simulation” on Sept. 14 at the Northeast Community Center on the day of the agency’s annual board of directors retreat. This learning tool was provided courtesy of the Missouri Association for Community Action (MACA). The purpose of the simulation is to sensitize people to a life of poverty by sending participants though a simulated month with a new identity.

img_4176The community of people can be made up of anywhere from 25 to 88 people who assume the role of a person living below the poverty line. Participants are broken up into family units that address the basic needs of living in poverty. Paying bills, getting groceries, taking kids to school and attending jobs are just a few of the many tasks that these families will have to do to survive this simulated month.

The harsh reality for these people is that there is not enough time, money or resources for them to complete all the tasks they need to address. The participants are meant to be representing those people living in poverty and, for those people, the same limitations of this simulation are their actual reality.

“Even when you’re doing everything right to the best of your ability you just can never climb out of that deficit of time and money and opportunity,” said Vicky Dalton, Spokane County auditor and SNAP board member. Dalton went on to tell Stephanie Vigil of KHQ, “as a child I experienced some of this frustration but not all of it, and now seeing it as an adult it has really helped me understand why people can be a little short.”

img_4190The “homes” for the families are represented by chairs in the center of a large room. Along the outside of the room, various community resources such as a school, hospital, police department, banks and grocery store are represented. To get to these stations, participants must spend a transportation card. If no card is provided, the participant cannot interact with that station. Most of the families ran into the problem of transportation in conjunction with the lack of finances.

Participants had to make partial payments on bills so that they could at least keep their homes while still providing food for the household. The room at the community center was milling with concerned families trying to figure out who to pay and how much with not much hope for completing every task in their short weeks.

Mary Westerman, who worked at SNAP for 25 years, took part in the simulation as a case manager.

“I felt empathy for the clients,” Mary said. “Even though it was a simulation, you could see they felt misunderstood and frustrated. In my role, I didn’t have the time or resources they needed, so I felt frustrated. It was a reminder that everyone has a story. We just have to take time to listen to those stories and try to help.”

img_4231The goal of the simulation is to prove that the cycle of poverty isn’t easily breakable. The back payments on bills, inability to access resources that will aid in getting you out of the cycle and the sheer lack of hours in the day serve as reminders of how perpetual the cycle of poverty can be.  At the end of the simulated three weeks, a large group discussion took place in which the participants shared their experiences and ideas on how to help their neighbors dealing with real-life poverty challenges.

“It was a very constructive, very educational exercise,” said SNAP CEO Julie Honekamp. “I think those who may have come today with a stereotype about the homeless and the whole notion of ‘just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ likely walked away with a more informed understanding of poverty and the struggles people face.”