SPENT: An exercise in empathy towards those in poverty

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The University of Connecticut Public Interest Research Group did a poverty simulation last night to raise awareness about the struggles low-income families face and the difficult decisions required of them to survive. The discussion that took place after the simulation focused on the effects that COVID-19 might have on people living in poverty. Photos provided by author.  

The University of Connecticut Public Interest Research Group did a poverty simulation last night to raise awareness about the struggles low-income families face and the difficult decisions required of them to survive.  

The event began with the campaign coordinator, Rebecca Tripp, introducing the organization and her campaign’s mission.  

The participants began the exercise after the short introduction. The simulation first informed you that you started the month with $1,000. It then required you to first choose a job, decide if you wanted to opt into insurance and if so, what type. The player then has to make a series of decisions regarding spending on groceries, transportation, housing, childcare and healthcare. It intermittently provides the player with facts and statistics and the number of Americans who face these conditions daily. Many participants in the event said having to make these decisions was truly difficult, but noted that it did not take into account people’s ethnic backgrounds, which could change these decisions drastically.  

“I think it could be enhanced if they took people’s identities into consideration because those more marginalized would be affected disproportionately,” Olivia Theroux, a fifth-semester marketing major and attendee, said. 

If the player ran out of money at any point, the simulation ended. If you made it to the end of the month, the simulation tells you that you have made it through the month, but rent is still due tomorrow.  

The discussion that took place after the simulation focused on the effects that COVID-19 might have on people living in poverty. Since the start of the pandemic, the unemployment rate in Connecticut has risen substantially. The beginning of the pandemic also led people to buy large quantities of non-perishable foods and toiletries, leaving less affordable options to those who were struggling before the pandemic.  

During the simulation, there were multiple cases where the player felt unwell and had to decide whether to go to work, stay home or be seen by a doctor. This decision has become more crucial as the pandemic continues. However, if you didn’t get health insurance at the beginning of the simulation, your medical bills had the potential to take all the money you had available before you were able to pay your rent or buy groceries. Photo provided by author.

Tripp posed questions to the audience regarding the unique challenges the pandemic has posed to low-income families. One of the questions in the simulation asked the player to decide on what to do when their car broke down. The options were getting it towed, getting repairs or taking public transportation. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic public transportation is a much more dangerous option, but the financial problem remains.  

“I feel that it can be a bit scary to go on public transportation considering how the virus can be transmitted through these spaces,” Natalie Plebanek, a fifth-semester chemical and biomolecular engineering major, said.  

During the simulation, there were multiple cases where the player felt unwell and had to decide whether to go to work, stay home or be seen by a doctor. This decision has become more crucial as the pandemic continues. However, if you didn’t get health insurance at the beginning of the simulation, your medical bills had the potential to take all the money you had available before you were able to pay your rent or buy groceries. 

Many of the participants said they didn’t make it to the end of the 30 days due to the mounting challenges. During the discussion, Tripp said a particularly disappointing scenario was one in which the player had to choose between going to their child’s recital or doing a $50 job for a neighbor to pay for groceries. It exposed a trend where people are not free to live their lives because they need to be able to support themselves, she said.  

Tripp’s campaign, Hunger and Homelessness, is aimed at helping people struggling with poverty afford basic necessities, like food, clothing and toiletries. The event was part of a week-long series called Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The organization decided to hold the poverty simulation as an exercise in empathy and to better understand the problems people face in order to create more viable solutions, according to Tripp.  

The event concluded with a quote from Nelson Mandela that read: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” 

The last event in the organization’s Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week is an all-day social media takeover on Thursday. The poverty simulation was through www.playspent.com.  

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