The University’s Sociology Department hosted a simulation Tuesday night meant to show students how it feels to live below the poverty line.
The workshop, titled “Experiencing Poverty in America,” was facilitated by the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, an Ann Arbor group that envisions a world free from violence and poverty.
ICPJ Director Chuck Warpehoski, who is also a member of the Ann Arbor City Council, said he aimed for participating students to gain deeper knowledge of and empathy for those living in poverty.
“Our main focus of the simulation is the empathy aspect to help people have not just an academic understanding of the barriers of poverty,” Warpehoski said.
The three-hour-long workshop replicated a month of poverty by dividing an hour into four weeks, each week covering 15 minutes. The concept, Warpehoski said, was developed by a group of welfare rights organizers in Missouri.
“There are all these victim blaming narratives out there,” Warpehoski said. “The lived experience was that it’s not that easy, and so they developed this simulation to give people just that tiny window into all the barriers that all the people in poverty face.”
The students were given scripts and asked to assume the roles of low-income people of a variety of backgrounds and family structures. Volunteers from the community played staff members of a fictional town, taking up the roles of store owners, welfare office workers, grocers, food pantry employees, police, employment interviewers and others.
Public Policy senior Blair Sucher said she felt very trapped in her character’s situation. Sucher said, in the simulation, her character’s income changed from a $60,000 per year to less than $1,000 per month.
“I didn’t know what I was doing from the get go,” she said. “I didn’t know where to go get resources. There were so many externalities that weren’t even covered, and I was already so overwhelmed by what was happening while sitting here. ”
Students were instructed not to break character. Murmurs of frustration could be heard in the room. One student cried out, “This is so hard.”
Assistant Sociology Prof. Alexandra Murphy noted a change in the overall atmosphere of the room as students felt the burdens of their mock situations intensify.
“It seemed like no one could trust each other and that everyone was looking out for themselves, and their families,” she said. “That stress made it difficult for students to navigate relationships with one another. They were trying to make the most of what they had without getting ripped off by their neighbors and the offices.”
At the end of the event, Warpehoski talked to the students about the need for affordable housing in Ann Arbor. He said the ICPJ supports an affordable housing development on Platt Road and he urged students to lobby elected officials in support of the housing program.
“The price of housing in Ann Arbor is very high,” he said. “There have been some voices that have come out that oppose affordable housing. Don’t let these be the only voices.”