Simulation puts students in shoes of impoverished community members

Different scenarios were performed with each affecting different group of people in poverty. (Photo by Majdolin Al Jajeh/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut PIRG hosted a poverty simulation in a Homer Babbidge video theater on Tuesday, Nov. 13. Like a poverty-themed choose-your-own-adventure game, students were asked to make decisions based on different scenarios in order to illustrate the experience of low-income families. The event was part of PIRG’s Hunger and Homelessness Campaign.

Participants were broken into groups of one or two and paired with a PIRG member to facilitate the simulation. The PIRG member presented participants with their scenario, which included things like, “You are a 22-year-old gay college student, taking classes at Three Rivers while working a minimum-wage job as a cashier,” or “You are a single mom with two children who recently moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico.”

Family situations, jobs and education level varied to create different potential challenges for each group.

After receiving the scenario, the simulation went day by day, presenting participants with new decisions to make. Armed with a stack of monopoly-style board game money, participants had to choose roommates, make decisions for their “children” and decide whether or not to pay bills, study for classes, go out with friends or buy a new phone. Students shelled out their fake cash and received some back according to their choices and their salary.

“We were constantly waiting for something bad to happen,” participant and third-semester finance major Hollis Wivell said.

The purpose of the simulation was to show how little control individuals can have over poverty, even when they make decisions every day.

“Poverty is something that could really happen to anyone,” third-semester allied health sciences major Mini Ajayi said after participating. “Things happen, and they can happen to anyone.”

A decision to spend $20 to go out with a friend doesn’t seem like a big deal until later when your car costs $300 to fix. Even if they had saved money, sometimes individuals in the simulation were caught between two tough calls, like having to choose between school and a job or between friends and money.

“We were weighing how much relationships meant to us,” third-semester speech, language and hearing sciences major Samantha McKenna said as a participant.

When deciding whether to attend a grandmother’s funeral, McKenna explained that participants weighed how much the grandmother meant to them in comparison to the money that could be saved.

The presentation began with facts and figures about homelessness in nearby communities, like how in Willimantic, the poverty rate is nearly 40 percent.

“It was meant to get students thinking about what’s happening outside of campus,” fifth-semester physiology and neurobiology major and event coordinator Hanako Agresta said. “Get people thinking about issues and decisions that have to be made, particularly in the local community.”

At the end of the presentation, students were asked to participate in a post-simulation discussion, to share some of what they had found challenging or surprising.

“I think maybe when you see people,” McKenna said, “take a step back and reflect. They could be someone in our simulation.”

Organized as a part of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, UConn PIRG will also be volunteering later in the week. At 6 p.m. today in the Student Union Theater, they will be showing “The Pursuit of Happyness” and holding a post-fim discussion.


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent/staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.