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 DHS News November 2013     


A Lesson in Living with Poverty

The Department of Human Services (DHS) Office of Community Services (OCS) and Gateway Health insurers, assisted by a half dozen of OCS’s social service support partners, recently conducted an eye-opening exercise in the impact of poverty on families.

Called a poverty simulator, the exercise at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh, Downtown, involved about 80 Gateway employees and representatives of county offices, agencies and nonprofits.  About two dozen more volunteers assisted. All played roles in the simulation, either as members of impoverished families, or as representatives of businesses or support agencies. The exercise utilized a kit produced by the Missouri Association of Community Action. OCS obtained the kit a few years ago through a grant.

John Litz, OCS Planner, said Gateway approached the Department of Human Services about running the simulation. Facilitators on the day of the simulation were John, Gateway’s Preventive Health Specialist Marnie Schilken and Cindy Moore, Education and Community Engagement Director for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Gateway Health’s consumers are primarily people who receive medical assistance. The simulator allowed Gateway’s employees, who included customer service, administrative and medical personnel, as well as representatives of the county Executive’s Office, DHS and news media, to get a small dose of what it is like to live with poverty every day.

Volunteers from partner agencies were assigned to stations where they played employees of banks, social service agencies, schools, food banks, stores and employers. Participants in the simulation played members of families struggling with a variety of income and social issues, from layoffs to teen pregnancy, to incarceration.

Hampered by the lack of transportation, access to cash, and housing and utility payments they could not meet, simulation family members worked through four, 15-minute “weeks” of poverty, to secure basic necessities at the stations manned by the volunteers. Other volunteers milled through the crowd, giving participants “Luck of the Draw” cards that sometimes brought good news (bonus food support), sometimes bad (expensive car repairs).

Participants said afterward they were profoundly affected by the how the stress of multiple financial calamities lead to family discord, theft, homelessness, violence and more as they became desperate to keep afloat.

“I couldn’t have taken another day,” said one participant during a debriefing after the simulation.

Participants said they would take the lessons of empathy learned back to their jobs, hoping to increase their practice of patience and helpfulness.

Cindy urged them also to adopt civic-mindedness. “Nobody wants to live in the situation you were in today. We all have the ability to help.”

While OCS does not run poverty simulators on its own, John said that the exercise gave it and OCS’s partner agencies expertise in running one and DHS will share that knowledge and the kit with anyone who wishes to undertake a simulator. Preparing for a simulation takes hours of planning and practice by volunteers, he noted. It is of value to anyone from school districts to health care agencies wishing to increase sensitivity around poverty issues.

Besides Gateway and DHS, agencies participating in the simulation were the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches; Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh; CIRCLES at Center Avenue United Methodist Church; Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank; the Human Services Center Corporation; Rainbow Kitchen Community Services; and the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.

For more information about the poverty simulator, contact John at 412-350-6617 or john.litz@alleghenycounty.us.



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