On Tuesday night, more than 50 undergraduate and graduate students gathered in the Ross School of Business’s Blau Colloquium for an event titled “Poverty Simulation: Making Sense of Making it in America,” gaining a perspective on the daily decisions and dilemmas of people facing poverty in the U.S.

During the three-hour simulation, student participants were organized into families, assigned demographic roles and were subsequently faced with a series of socioeconomic obstacles, ranging from mortgage payments to childcare and daily transportation costs.

The simulation was organized and facilitated by the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, an Ann Arbor-based activist organization emphasizing social and environmental justice, and Poverty Solutions, a research center at the University of Michigan launched in 2016, which aims to illuminate the causes and consequences of American poverty in search of viable solutions to socioeconomic concerns felt by millions across the country.

Trevor Bechtel, the student engagement coordinator for Poverty Solutions, elaborated on the mission of the University’s center, which is based in the Ford School of Public Policy.

“Our goal is to find projects where we can understand what makes a material difference in people’s lives,” Bechtel said. “We have a partnership with the city of Detroit. It’s the only partnership that exists between a major research university and a mayor’s office.”

According to Bechtel,  Poverty Solutions put a great deal of work into creating a realistic experience for student participants.

“We partnered with the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice to do the event,” Bechtel said. “They’ve been doing these for about 25 years … they collect volunteers from a whole variety of demographic groups.”

Chuck Warpehoski, the current director of the ICPJ and a former Ann Arbor city councilman, explained ensuring the reality of the situations posed to participants was a key factor in crafting the simulation. Warpehoski said many of the simulation’s volunteers provided a real-life perspective to participants.

“Some of the people who are playing various community roles in the simulation are people who are formerly homeless, some are on public assistance,” Warpehoski said. “They bring a real-life experience to the role and to the simulation that can provide an authenticity and perspective that is difficult to bring in from just reading about it.”

During the simulation, each volunteer was given a specific community role to play, occupying the roles of policemen, employment officers and mortgage collectors.

Helen Simon, one of the simulation’s organizers, has been volunteering in ICPJ simulations since the 1990s. During the event, Simon managed “Quick Cash,” a location made up by the simulation’s organizers to give out food stamps and transportation passes to student participants.

According to Simon, volunteers were permitted, and in some cases, instructed, to make tasks more difficult for participants. For instance, several volunteers failed to provide work checks to participants due to long lines, or even cheated participants who were unaware of their rights.

“I think we try to make it as realistic as we can,” Simon said. “I’m a Quick Cash person and I’ve never done this particular job before, but (the simulation guide) says that if you can get away with it, try to cheat the person. I’m too kind-hearted, I’m not going to try and cheat, but evidently it does happen.”

LSA freshman Nathalie O’Hernandez was a student participant. According to O’Hernandez, the economic struggles faced by her simulation group were noticeably linked to factors of race and ethnicity.

“It’s something that I’ve noticed, especially with my identity — I’m Latina,” O’Hernandez said. “And our family (in the simulation), we’re the Perez family. And how many times has a police officer come up to us and harassed us, asking us what we’ve done? Why are we singled out in that sense?”

O’Hernandez said her perceptions about the biases of law enforcement and other public resources were intensified by her participation in the simulation Tuesday.

“It’s just really striking how the stereotypes you have about these different systems are really apparent,” O’Hernandez said. “Although we have reached a time where we are able to talk about these things, nothing has changed them.”

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify ICPJ is Ann Arbor-based, and helped organize and facilitate the event.

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