Program Makes Poverty Personal

Dan Goodwin ‘14, Berkeley Chapman ‘11 and Nick Corridoni ‘11 participate in a poverty simulation on campus.  Photo by Kayla MacMillan '11

Last fall, students, faculty and staff assumed new identities and family designations as part of a poverty simulation, conducted by the Union-Snyder Community Action Agency and cosponsored by SU’s Center for Civic Engagement and Center for Diversity and Social Justice. The simulation, which modeled a month of living in poverty, was part of the Social Justice Experience Series, an ongoing initiative of the Center for Diversity and Social Justice, which provides members of the Susquehanna community with experiences that bring to life theoretical knowledge of social justice.

“I wanted it to open my eyes to the struggles people face,” says Samantha Culin ’14, who participated in the poverty experience.

Grouped in assigned family units, participants gathered in the meeting rooms of the Charles B. Degenstein Campus Center. There they learned how much money they were earning compared to the cost of their monthly necessities. Facilitators introduced the simulation setup, which included destinations like a bank, supermarket and a department of social services. Going to any location except school required a transportation pass, representing travel costs.

The “month-long” simulation consisted of 12-minute “weeks.” Each week required many tasks and a lot of stamina from participants. Karen Stewart ’14 says, “The most stressful aspect was definitely trying to find the time to go to work, cash my check and pay the bills, and at the same time make sure I had enough transportation passes for my children and me.”

Frustration was palpable as participants rushed through each week, only to receive bad news—an eviction notice, utilities being shut off and unexpected financial burdens, such as a child needing glasses.

“I was flustered enough,” says Tierney Ayers ’12, “but then someone robbed me, the people at the Social Security offices were demanding and cold, and everyone was trying to rip me off. I knew it was just a simulation, but I am a very emotional person by nature, and at one point, I felt so defeated that my eyes started watering and I just wanted to sit down and cry.”

M. Andy Nagy, interim coordinator of residence life for civic engagement and a key organizer of the event, says, “I think the stereotype of people in poverty being lazy was broken down really quickly.”

In a debriefing session, attendees were encouraged to act upon their heightened empathy. Nagy suggested students assist a local community action agency, help a neighbor with childcare or an elderly person with taxes. “There are tons of ways to help,” Nagy says.  

Contributing writers to People & Places are Audrey Carroll ‘12, Megan McDermott ‘14 and Karen Jones, assistant director of media relations.

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