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Can a campus ‘poverty simulation’ really teach students what it’s like to be poor?


Campus “poverty simulations” appear to be growing in popularity. A recent report in The College Fix looked seven different schools hosting these events; there are doubtlessly many more out there. The “simulations,” produced by activist and community organizations, purport to show students what it’s like to live as a poor person. Participants are divided into “families” that then experience simulated “months” of poor living, including going to social services, selling household items at a pawnbroker’s, and getting their children taken into protective custody.

It definitely sounds like a way to pass three hours on campus, if you’ve got no midterms coming up and no group projects to attend to. The idea that it teaches students anything meaningful about poverty is just silly. Poverty, of course, is not a monolithic experience—people experience it differently depending on their individual circumstances, income level, personal habits and numerous other personal and socio-political factors. Yet even the poverty that this simulation purports to mimic—one in which the threat of utility cutoffs and evictions is always looming large—cannot be encapsulated by a morning workshop. It’s almost insulting to pretend otherwise.

There is a tendency in modern academia to always want to do these types of things—workshops, seminars, “teach-ins,” any number of other activities that purport to educate students but in fact don’t really do that. Let’s be perfectly blunt: A week or two after attending a “poverty simulation,” participants probably won’t think about it at all, and it will have likely left little to no lasting impacting on their worldview. Everyone already knows poverty is bad; you don’t need a campus workshop to tell you that, and you don’t need one to teach you how to fix it. There are any number of ways to ameliorate poverty, chief among them a capitalist economy that creates jobs, generates wealth, and lifts countless numbers of people into better lives. Somehow it seems doubtful that’s what’s being taught at these “simulations.”

MORE: Universities host workshops teaching basic adult skills

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