Poverty Is Not a Game

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So I know that I am a cynic, but come on.

The Missoulian has a report today about a poverty simulation, put on by Montana Legal Services and the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth, in which participants were given a better understanding of what it means to be poor by playing a game that sounds a lot like Monopoly:

The Duntleys were one of those families, made up of three UM students: Miffa Terry as Doris, Allie Harrison as Diana and John Strzelecki as Dan.

The Duntleys were given four 15-minute periods – each representing a week – and asked to try to cover their basic needs. That meant the kids needed to go to school, while Doris tried to find a way to come up with the approximately $900 they would need to eat, stay warm, pay bills and stay off the street.

As someone who spent at least part of a childhood in pretty challenging economic circumstances, I suspect that an hour long simulation that didn’t involve any utilities being turned off, food being unavailable, a profound sense of shame, or lack of transportation probably didn’t terribly accurately depict poverty, and yet I am to believe that simulations like this are a good way to make people empathize with the plight of the poor:

The idea behind the simulation was to give people a chance to understand what it means to be poor.

“There’s no better way to do that than by trying to make the decisions that those people have to make,” said Michelle Hauer, a volunteer coordinator for Legal Services.

Actually, a better way might be to spend that hour working with the poor and providing actual assistance. Maybe that Thursday afternoon would have been better spent driving some of the people who lack transportation to get social services and work to those locations.

I find these exercises incredibly frustrating. Despite good intentions, they demean the poor by trivializing their experiences in something that you can wash away with a $4 latte after the harrowing experience of pretending to be poor for an hour.

Reasonable people don’t need to play games to realize the struggle low income families face. They know that poverty is not a game, nor is it something that can be understood by simulating the experience. They already know what poverty means, to children, to families, to communities.

Instead of making believe, wouldn’t it be nice if community organizations consistently just worked on making things better?

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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