Poverty Simulation at USG Teaches Empathy, Understanding Through Role Play
students visit social services during poverty simulation
Students apply for benefits at the Department of Social Services during A Poverty Simulation on October 3rd.

How can you begin to understand the stress of being an unemployed father with three kids, including a pregnant 16-year old daughter and a wife who earns minimum wage? That is exactly the test that more than 130 students at USG were put to on October 3rd during A Poverty Simulation presented by USG’s Committee for Interprofessional and Interdisciplinary Education Strategies (CIPES).

During the simulation, participants role-played the lives of low-income families, from single parents trying to care for their children to senior citizens trying to maintain their self sufficiency on Social Security. The task of each family was to provide food, shelter and other basic necessities during the simulation while interacting with various community resources, as well as utility companies, day care centers, schools, pawn shops, health care providers and police departments.

Although the simulation uses "play" money and other props, fictional scenarios, and time limits, the activity is not a game. It is a simulation tool developed by nonprofit group, Missouri Association for Community Action, that enables participants to view poverty from different angles in an experiential setting.

Reaching a New Understanding

students collaborate to make a family plan during A Poverty Simulation
Participants read their family profile and begin planning to meet their goals.

The hour-long simulation replicated one month in the life of an impoverished individual or family, with every 15 minutes representing one week. Participants were assigned to detailed profiles outlining age, income, housing scenario, and more. As a group or alone, they encountered routine life activities and were forced to deal with the difficultly of paying for child care and transportation, putting food on the table, gaining access to healthcare and social services, and maintaining or finding employment. Situations often became increasingly complicated when participants met unexpected circumstances such as crime, layoffs, and illness or deaths in the family.

“What surprised me most was how quickly I wanted to give up on my morals,” said Yenrue Chang, a UMBC Psychology major at USG who was assigned the role of a 42-year-old unemployed father of three. “I kept getting so disappointed at the setbacks; it really helped me understand what some people are going through.”

Collaborating to Strengthen the Role of Health and Human Service Professionals

student particpates holding infant doll
Students were required to provide child care for thier family's young children during the simulation.

The event also provided an opportunity for students seeking careers in health and human services to deepen their understanding of how they can more effectively serve the public. The simulation brought together students and faculty from Salisbury Respiratory Therapy, Towson Elementary and Early Childhood Education, University of Maryland, Baltimore County Psychology and Social Work, University of Maryland, College Park Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, and University of Maryland School of Nursing programs at USG. In addition, more than 30 volunteers from various local organizations participated, including Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, Kaiser Permanente, and Adventist Healthcare.

“I hope that this encourages students to take a step back and think about the importance of their responsibilities as professionals in the health and human services industry,” said Rene Williams, Project Manager with Montgomery County’s DHHS, Child Care Subsidy Programs. “Sometimes you only have one opportunity to help an individual or a family.”

Following a group debrief, students were invited to participate in a follow-up panel discussion to be held November 14th, 3pm – 4pm at USG with community experts including Susie Sinclair-Smith, Executive Director for the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, Mark Bergel, Founder and Executive Director for A Wider Circle, Uma S. Ahluwalia, Director for Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.

USG wishes to thank the staff, faculty, and partners who made this event possible.

Special thanks to:

  • Crystal DeVance-Wilson and Kathie Dever, University of Maryland School of Nursing
  • Heather Congdon, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy
  • Katie Morris, UMBC Social Work
  • Adrianna Guerra, Salisbury Respiratory Therapy
  • Marcie Povitsky, Towson Education
  • Wendy Stickle, University of Maryland, College Park Criminal Justice
  • Mary Lang, Chelsea Powers, Joann Mirgon, and Melissa Marquez, USG Staff
  • Michele Bland, Kaiser Permanente
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