When I facilitate the poverty simulation, participants are usually people who have resources who want to learn a bit about what it feels like to live in poverty. They willingly submit themselves to a two-hour experience and have their eyes and hearts opened to the challenges of living in poverty.  The comments afterwards during the debriefing as well as in the evaluations show that teachers, medical professionals, church members, civic leaders, university students, and others  learn a great deal that helps them to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and certainly more understanding of how difficult living in poverty is. Occasionally there are people in the simulation who have lived or are still living the life that we simulate.

Recently I facilitated a poverty simulation where the majority of participants live in poverty. This became evident when the volunteers realized that some of the people they interacted with could not read or write.  Poor dental care was evident. Even more telling was a worksheet that “students” in the simulation do while at “school.” On this sheet are forty boxes to check when the person has experienced what was listed in a box.  More than one sheet that I found afterwards had at least 25 boxes checked.   One participant checked:

  • Spent the night in the home of someone with significantly less money than me
  • Eaten the last two cans of food in the pantry
  • Lived without electricity for more than 48 hours
  • Moved at least three times in a year
  • Been without transportation to get to an appointment
  • Taken a ride on a public bus
  • Had only one coat
  • Seen someone die
  • Seen a different doctor every time I needed medical care
  • Not seen a dentist for at least three years
  • Used a check cashing business
  • Walked everywhere I needed to go for a week
  • Worked three jobs at the same time
  • Received financial help from my church
  • Had a car that was at least 9 years old
  • Shared a bedroom with more than one person
  • Washed my family’s clothes in a laundromat for at least six months
  • Been without food for at least 36 hours
  • Been unable to play sports because of the cost
  • Been watched closely while shopping
  • Lost a job
  • Worked for minimum wage
  • Lived for more than six months without health insurance
  • Avoided a bill collector
  • Smelled of kerosene
  • Used a rent-to-own television
  • Been asked to move from my home
  • Had a family member with a drug or alcohol problem
  • Placed buckets around to catch rain from the leaky roof

When I realized the realities of the participants in the simulation, I wondered if the simulation would/could be beneficial to them. They surely could teach me more than I could teach them. However, the poverty simulation worked its magic. Here are just a few comments of things the group liked about the experience:

  • Fun and interactive, very much like real life. Showing how hard it is even with a job to maintain your household
  • Teach to save money
  • The realistic consequences
  • Learning what it’s like to get charged almost 300% interest when getting a loan to help with bills and expenses
  • Necessities come first
  • It showed me I have what it takes to take care of my family
  • Getting people to understand the power of poverty
  • The stress of being the only one working
  • Open my eyes to title loan and check cashing place


Participants said the simulation would help them:

  • Teaches me to have patience
  • Helps me understand others and not be judgmental
  • Shows how to use your money wisely
  • Make better decisions and be aware of choices
  • Think more about how I spend money that I can save
  • I know to finish school
  • It gives me a chance to know what it’s going to be like when I get a place
  • It will help me provide better for my daughter
  • Budget money better
  • I currently live in this situation but this experience made my life seem easier


It was an honor to be welcomed into such a group for a few hours.  It was a learning experience for all of us!

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