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,
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
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
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
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
For more information about the poverty simulator, contact
John at 412-350-6617 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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