At Elon University, to experience is to learn — and studying the issue of poverty is no exception. For 10 years, religious studies and human services classes at Elon have participated in poverty simulations, hour-long events during which students are presented with the problems and decisions people living in poverty face on a daily basis.

Participants in the program are broken into ficticious families, ranging from single adults to families of five. Each person becomes a member of the family, and a packet details each family member’s name, age and role.

[quote]When people go through the simulation, they get a more developed, more intimate understanding of the struggle and choices people (in poverty) have to make. --Toddie Peters Associate professor of religious studies[/quote]

Groups learn about what life would be like for that family for a month by having to pay bills, work or find jobs, find childcare and make decisions during four 15-minute sessions during the simulation.

“It’s one thing to learn about poverty and another thing to experience the different choices people have to make day-to-day when they have very limited means and lots of stressors in their lives,” said Pam Kiser, a professor of human service studies who has incorporated the simulation into her classes. “It gets at that different kind of learning that is more likely to help students go beyond intellectual understanding to have a greater level of concern.”

Toddie Peters, associate professor of religious studies, introduced the simulation to Elon approximately a decade ago with her Winter Term class that year. Though the university initially brought in a consultant to lead the activity, Elon now owns a copy of the simulation for itself.

“When people go through the simulation, they get a more developed, more intimate understanding of the struggle and choices people (in poverty) have to make and the questions they have to juggle,” Peters said. “I can’t pay this bill because I have to pay that.”

Senior Evan Peleaux participated in the simulation earlier this semester as a part of Peters’ Christianity and Social Justice class. Peleaux served as the father of a family of five who struggled to meet their basic needs.

“I felt very hopeless as each week passed, getting behind on our bills and having to choose between putting food on the table or fending off the collection agencies,” Peleaux said. “Tough choices needed to be made every week as to how we were going to survive. Living in that kind of fear was overwhelming and paralyzing at some times.”

Peleaux said after engaging in the simulation, his perspective of impoverished people was broadened, and he learned that even some who work full-time jobs are still stuck in the cycle of poverty.

“Before the simulation, I was under the assumption that people living below the poverty line were just not putting enough effort into getting themselves to a sustainable lifestyle,” he said. “After the simulation, I realized how little time there was to possibly go back to school or find a job or apply for government aid.”

On Thursday March 8, several classes of The Global Experience will participate in the poverty simulation. Peters said the program is set up to handle up to 85 participants, in addition to the 15 or 20 people who serve as community members, such as a teacher, bank employee or pawn shop owner with whom participants must interact.

“(As a participant), I am having to make a decision about whether I’m going to leave my child alone to go to a job or just not go to my job and risk losing it,” Kiser said.  “I think that you never forget it’s a simulation, but you also realize that, yes — I am thinking about doing things I never would have thought about doing before.”

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