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Poverty Role-Playing Game

1.4 million people live in poverty in Michigan, according to the federal government. But not many people realize what that number actually means. A group in Kalamazoo thinks one of the ways to address the issue of poverty is with a game.



The game is called a “poverty simulation workshop.”  Participants role-play a month in the life of someone living in poverty. The goal of the game is to keep your home secure, feed your family, go to work, and pay your bills. Everyone in the workshop is assigned the role of a character, based on real people in real situations in Michigan. 

Megan Kursik and Catie Boring are playing the wife and husband of the Chen family. They have two children, and Mr. Chen was recently laid off from his job as a computer programmer. Mrs. Chen works as a secretary.

Pretty soon there’s bad news for the Chens: the wife gets sick, misses work, and gets fired. So it’s up to unemployed husband Catie Boring figure out how to pay their mounting bills.

“We are desperate for money and we got referred to DHS but they’re closed for the holiday and now we have zero funds.”

And since the mortgage and bills don’t get paid, the Chen family eventually gets evicted.

Several participants told me their real life stress levels during this “game,” on a scale of one to ten, were an 8 or 9, and all that stress is the point, says Jeff Brown. Brown is executive director of Poverty Reduction Initiative.

He says in order to tackle poverty we have to go beyond just knowing the statistics about poverty.

“You may have knowledge that’s based on facts and numbers and data. But until you actually have a way to immerse yourself and have an emotional connection it’s just a whole different experience.”

Brown says when people emotionally understand poverty they get much more fired up to do something. Whether that’s making changes at a local level, or talking with officials & lawmakers.

And lawmakers need to understand the struggles poor people face, when creating policies. That’s what Kristin Seefeldt says. She’s an assistant professor at the School of Public & Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

“Even with policies that aren’t directly anti-poverty policies, like our tax policies. If we just make decisions without truly understanding how they’ll affect people, that’s a bad way to make policy and we risk leaving poor folks even further behind, if there’s not some sort of shared understanding about what life is like and what fixes could really help.”

This workshop can also help the people taking it do their real-life jobs better. In the past, the workshop has been taken by school & university employees, staff at the department of human services, police departments, and employees of the court system.

In fact, Sally Vliem is a Master Faculty Specialist at the Bronson School of Nursing at Western Michigan University. She took the workshop and was so impressed, she now requires all of her students to go through the workshop as part of their training.  



Kyle Norris is from Michigan and spent ten years as a host and reporter with Michigan Radio, the state’s largest NPR-affiliate. He lives in Seattle and works as a substitute host and producer at KNKX.
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