Learning empathy for those who struggle with poverty

November 1, 2019

More than 60 congressional staff and four members of Congress participated in a poverty simulation to understand the struggles that millions of Americans face every day.* One member of Congress called the experience an “eye opener.”

During the event at the Capitol Visitors Center, sponsored by Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) and Entergy Corporation, participants assumed the roles of low-income family members living on a limited budget and enduring a range of circumstances that resulted in poverty. They interacted with volunteers who played the roles of social service providers from various community organizations.

One member of Congress was assigned the role of “Eunice Ussar,” a widowed senior citizen in reasonably good health but who requires arthritis medicine not covered by Medicare/Medicaid and help with unpaid bills. A senior staffer played the role of a single parent who, with limited resources and no transportation, had to find a way to get to work and to get her child to daycare. A communication specialist took on the role of a young adult who must care for his siblings while their parent is incarcerated.

During the simulation, participants experienced poverty for one “month,” which was divided into four 15-minute “weeks.” During these “weeks,” each family unit, in order to meet their basic needs, had to connect with community resources, such as schools, a utility company, a mortgage firm, and social service workers.

The experience lasted about two hours and included a preliminary briefing, the simulation exercise, and a debriefing period during which participants and volunteers shared their reactions and learned about ways to get involved in reducing poverty.

CCUSA realizes that poverty is not a game – it is a reality throughout our country for people whom our network serves every day. Poverty simulations are a powerful, experiential opportunity for people to learn about and engage in poverty reduction.

By participating in a simulation, members of Congress and their staff increased their understanding of the dynamics of poverty and the struggle for self-sufficiency many people face.

“Too often, low-income families and working Americans bear the brunt of our government’s inaction or the unintended consequences of our policies,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), who took part in the poverty simulation exercise. “With this poverty simulation hosted by Catholic Charities, Congress was given a welcome opportunity to better understand the daily struggles facing too many of our constituents.”

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), who also participated in the event, said, “The Poverty Simulation on Capitol Hill was an eye-opening experience for all those who participated, and I applaud all the organizers and sponsors for making the event a success. It demonstrated both the highs and the lows facing Americans in poverty today. Through the exercise, we should all be emboldened to redouble our efforts to lift Americans out of poverty and improve the quality of life for all those in our country.”

The simulation exercise is one part of a new, broader effort at CCUSA to engage and educate local communities, helping them to become grassroots advocates.

CCUSA can present a poverty simulation in your community. It will allow parish leaders, politicians, donors, and community supporters to walk in the shoes of people who are impoverished. Through a live-action experience, participants can gain the empathy and motivation to join in the effort to end poverty.

*The event happened on May 23, 2018.

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