Students Seek to Understand Poverty in the United States through University Experience



On Thursday, Feb. 21, a group of 84 St. John’s students, faculty, administrators and staff gathered in the D’Angelo Center to seek a better understanding of poverty in the United States. They participated in “The Poverty Experience” — a simulation of the financial hardships faced by millions of Americans every day.

This event was presented in collaboration with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Long Island and two student groups, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Ambassadors and St. Vincent de Paul Society, to enlighten students on the difficulties that millions of Americans experience every day. In fact,12.3 percent of the American population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2017 United States Census Bureau.

According to a St. John’s press release, “The Poverty Experience” included an hour-long simulation in which students acted as various families living in poverty, while faculty, administrators and staff assumed the roles of organizations, businesses and community members.

“The Poverty Experience was originally developed as a learning tool by the Reform Organization of Welfare Education Association,” Terri Zenobio, director of Vincentian Services, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Long Island, said in the University’s press release. “It sought to move citizens beyond compassion to an active commitment to work toward social justice.”

When the simulation began, students were assigned a family varying in size. They were then given different budgets and tasked with providing basic necessities and shelter for one month, represented by four 15-minute long ‘weeks.’

The students proceeded to interact with individuals who represented different community resources, services and members including the bank, a food pantry, an employment office, a pawnbroker, a grocery store, welfare office, public school, police officer, utility collector and a landlord.

Throughout the simulation, students encountered several issues that required them to interact with these various individuals around the room, such as the loss of a job or a medical emergency. The press release detailed several students’ reactions to this simulation. 

“I took on the role of a young single mom, six months pregnant, with two small children ages two and three,” Caitlin Neir, a junior studying adolescent education said. “Never in my life have I felt so alone and frustrated with the world. What put me at a loss for words was the fact that this scenario was actually someone’s reality.”

Students like Neir saw firsthand how the impact of these issues could be enhanced by a lack of financial resources.

In another example, a student who was given the role of a job seeker could find themself confronted with a number of issues, such as having to  pick a sick child up from school or needing to visit social services, which could make getting to an interview difficult.

Senior Anna Evseev, a CRS Ambassador, participated in a similar simulation while doing advocacy work in Washington, D.C. “I could not even get through half of the tasks,” she reflected. “If you work long hours at a full-time job, by the time you get to the social services office, they may be closed for the day. It shows you just how difficult it is to live in poverty.”

During this simulation, many students lived out  scenarios that are realities for families living in poverty —  forced to choose between decisions such as paying the electric bill or buying food for their family.

“‘The Poverty Simulation’ gave students, administrators, faculty and staff a chance to develop empathy for those who face poverty every day,” Joann Heaney-Hunter, Ph.D., an associate professor of theology and religious studies, who portrayed a schoolteacher at the simulation, said. “I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difficult circumstances some people experience, and the challenge of our call to respond as Vincentians.”