October 21, 2005

Poverty Simulation Gives Students New Perspective

"... 'I was nine years old, my mom was in jail, and I lived with my grandparents, who were stressed out and struggling to keep the family afloat. I needed glasses and my sister needed dental work. We never got those things. We were fortunate if we got to eat'..."

photos courtesy of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) collection in the U.S. Library of Congress.By Annie Murphree

Article adapted from the Samford Crimson, October 12, 2005

Imagine waking up wondering how you will pay the rent, buy essential medicine, acquire healthcare, feed your kids and send them to a good school. About 20 percent of Alabama's citizens live below the poverty threshold and struggle daily to overcome these challenges.

On October 10 in Bashinsky Fieldhouse, students and several members of the community were given the opportunity to sensitize themselves to these situations by participating in Samford's first "Poverty Simulation," a program jointly sponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Samford in Mission grant. Many professors--not only in sociology, but in fields as far-ranging as history and business--either required or encouraged their students to attend the three hour, hands-on experience.

The simulation created an artificial month in the life of low-income families in which every 20 minutes represented a week. As participants entered, they chose seats within groups of chairs, forming family units facing disabilities, single-parenting, and low-income barriers. Each individual received a sheet of information that included his or her name, social security number, address and family profile, along with the needs of the family and the resources available to meet those needs.

Social services, represented by tables and headed by volunteers, filled the perimeter of the room. Based on given situations, family members visited stations such as the bank, pawnshop, school, daycare, police station and grocery store.

"They are trying to make it as realistic as possible," Kate Medley, junior sociology major who volunteered at a social services table said. "Unbeknownst to all the participants, there's even a thief in here who has the ability to hold up the bank, sell drugs outside the school and steal social security cards and food stamps from the families' stations while they are going about their activities."

Professor Theresa Davidson, a recent addition to the Department of Sociology who specializes in the area of poverty, directed the event. "Students experienced a lot of frustration because their lives were no longer safe or comfortable," Davidson said. She was pleased with the turnout and felt that the students became more aware of the harsh realities of life at or near the poverty level by the end of the night.

"It was surreal," junior international relations major Amy Martin said. "I was nine years old, my mom was in jail, and I lived with my grandparents, who were stressed out and struggling to keep the family afloat. I needed glasses and my sister needed dental work. We never got those things. We were fortunate if we got to eat."

As an 85-year-old woman living alone on $3,000 per year, sophomore undeclared major John Lundeen understood. "Now I am much more aware that the necessities of an older person are not the same as my own," Lundeen said. "I found the difference between what I knew of poverty and what poverty really is."

Davidson also handed out information sheets citing resources, poverty statistics in the U.S. and in Alabama, myths about poverty and ways to make a difference in efforts to eradicate poverty.

Participants were encouraged to spread the word about poverty issues through researching and becoming involved in organizations that are helping impoverished people, designing their own poverty-related projects, writing letters to government officials and the media, and developing relationships with people at all socio-economic levels.

After completing the simulation, a discussion followed in which students shared their reactions to the experience.

Another Poverty Simulation will be held on November 7. Family Studies Professor Dan Sandifer-Stech, who originally commissioned the simulation, said that in the future Samford would like to continue to conduct this event at least once a year.

Photo courtesy of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) collection in the U.S. Library of Congress.

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