Personal Narrative: Thoughts on Kenyon’s Upcoming Poverty Simulation

The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives. Today’s is authored by Alex Greenwald ’16. 

I didn’t grow up in poverty, but I was surrounded by those who did. About 76 percent of my elementary and high school classmates were on the free lunch program, and for many of them, that was the only meal they got each day. Several of my family members and friends are on some form of government assistance, even though they are able to and do work. As for my parents and I, we were always fine, but never what you would call “well off.”

I was not conscious of any of this until I got to Kenyon, despite the fact that one year on the Hill costs more than my parents earn annually (financial aid is a beautiful thing). However, almost immediately upon arrival in Gambier, I began to realize that my experiences at home put me in a minority here. Among the first things to greet me during orientation was an invitation to a dinner for first-generation students “who may find the transition to college overwhelming,” while legacy students had a private dinner in another room. Later, I found myself  in class with students who made comments about “poor people,” describing them as uneducated and uninformed. At first I tried to dispel these misconceptions, but eventually it became clear that I would not succeed. While I have had many empowering, enriching and joyful experiences at Kenyon, the message has been clear: if you don’t come from the same background as most of your classmates, you don’t belong, are assumed to be maladjusted to college life and an uncomfortable anomaly that has to be handled delicately.

I don’t mean to imply that all Kenyonites are rich, classist or some combination of the two. Many are not. Even so, the fact remains that Kenyon has a habit of making those who did not grow up in the upper middle class the Other.

Some members of the community are trying to rectify this, organizing a “Poverty Simulation” with the help of United Way. However, the nature of this program only serves to draw yet another line between Us and Them, the residents of the Hill and the poor.

Ignoring the icky title, which makes the experience seem trivial — like a flight simulation or those hurricane wind machines at the mall — the Poverty Simulation suggests that the poor are so different we must pretend to be them to understand their lives, relegating them to the fantasy realm of the murder mystery guests and warlocks whose identities we can create as we go along.

According to the March 27th edition of The Collegian, the goal of the simulation is to show that poverty is not always the fault of the impoverished and to encourage participants to work towards societal changes to ease the struggles faced by the poor. While it is still unclear what form the Kenyon simulation will take, further reading on the United Way website and blogs of past participants has shown that poverty simulations can last between an hour and a few days, during which participants attempt to living on a small, fixed amount of cash and in simulated situations meant to represent those faced by the poor. They are assigned an identity and a short backstory — examples that I found were “unemployed steel worker,” “single mom” and “ex-con.” Many of the descriptions I saw related that stealing is allowed within the simulation.

While I see lots of good intentions here — none of the examples I found suggested that the characters ended up in poverty because they were lazy or stupid — the program is as rife with stereotypes as is the typical uninformed commentator. While the professed point of the experience is to foster understanding of the impoverished, the roles assigned in the simulation do not intersect with the self-image of the target audience. Adding to this alienation is the option to steal, which, while definitely committed by those who are desperate, is normally a last resort and here mainly paints the poor as morally corrupt. Nowhere is it mentioned that financial struggle — whether full-blown poverty or just a need to cut back — can affect anyone, at any time, for a variety of reasons, and that equally difficult moral decisions are faced by members of all socioeconomic groups. Consuming all of this is the idea that in a matter of hours one can grasp the whole of impoverished life in the same amount of time we would invest in a class discussion on a similar topic. Trying to condense the entirety of anyone’s life into a one-time event is absurd and suggests that the experience of the poor can be generalized into a short lesson plan. To do so simply replaces one set of negative stereotypes for another, only slightly less problematic one.

The other professed intention behind Kenyon’s Poverty Simulation is to encourage participants to create societal change in regard to the poor. As before, the intention here is good — there are many changes that need to be made to public policy before poverty can begin to be remedied. However, presenting this simulation as a way to facilitate change portrays the poor as a group that needs the wealthy to swoop in and fix all of their problems. While this is not totally incorrect — those who live in poverty do need help, and they can’t fix all of their problems on their own — the poor do not need a group of people who think they understand poverty because they  have role played as unemployed steel workers speaking on their behalf. Being empathetic does not require comprehension of others’ situations, real or otherwise; it requires an understanding that others live differently and the ability to care without comprehension.

I’m not suggesting that curious students shouldn’t attend — despite its problematic nature, the simulation is a potentially  enlightening experience if participants understand that it does not give a definitive account of what it’s like to live in poverty. However, allow me to suggest an alternative: instead of investing your free time in a simulation of poverty, spend the equivalent hours volunteering at a food bank, homeless shelter, soup kitchen or other charitable organization. While you’re there, talk to the people you’re helping. This may not give you the same “inside experience” as the Poverty Simulation, but it will do you one better. This human interaction promotes empathy by allowing you to get to know those you seek to understand on a personal level — and to do some tangible good in the world at the same time. If we spend our energy and time wisely, we can come closer to erasing some of the dividing lines we’ve already drawn.

10 responses

  1. Simulation is too damn safe and a capitulation to a culture of comfort and need for dominant control. One of the oddities and discomforts of engaging the complex of sociability — of how we own each other, and what we owe each other, and the contest therein – starts with talking to people.

    Thanks, Alex, for this cogent criticism of virtual reality, the deleterious fiction of a homogenized poor, and your call to connect with, well, actual humans.

  2. Pingback: Michael “Trixie” Kengama ’14 On The Importance of Dialogue (And The Purpose Of All Those Posters) | The Thrill

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