Poverty Simulations at SCSU & WCSU Prepare Students for Helping Professions


Over the past two years SCSU & WCSU have put on poverty simulations, during which students in helping fields (such as social work) take on the roles of individuals and families living in poverty. Working through four fifteen-minute “weeks,” they try to secure basic necessities such as food and housing despite immense challenges. “Students have to go around and interact with the various resource persons. For example, welfare case workers, grocers, schools, pawn brokers, mortgage collectors, and bankers,” said organizer Dr. Stephen Monroe Tomczak, a professor of social welfare policy and community organization in the SCSU Department of Social Work.

Most participants are surprised at the extreme barriers and difficulties they encounter during the simulation. As the simulation demonstrates, people living in poverty must struggle for survival on a daily basis. Affordable housing, transportation and childcare can be almost impossible to secure for many. For students, simulated encounters with social workers and other care professionals can be a shocking experience, as they aren’t used to what it feels like on the other side of the desk. “The [original] idea was that you would turn the tables on service providers,” said Dr. Tomczak.

Participating students also donated to a food drive

Participating students also donated to a food drive

Dr. Tomczak first came across the poverty simulation as a graduate student. “I found it a powerful and illuminating experience that further sensitized me to the plight of individuals in poverty,” he said. “Part of the problem we face [in social work] is that people aren’t as aware or empathetic with the real difficulties and limited choices that people in poverty are experiencing.” Dr. Tomczak brought the program to SCSU in May 2012, where it was met with great success. The simulation has now become mandatory at SCSU for all undergraduate and graduate students in social work.  In planning and developing this program, Dr. Tomczak has been assisted by several colleagues in the SCSU Social Work Department, mostly notably Professor Heather Pizzanello and Dr. Dana Schneider.  “ It has really been a team effort,” says Dr. Tomczak.

The poverty simulation has also been put on interdepartmentally at WCSU with students from nursing, education, as well as social work. Dr. Deneen Harris of the WCSU Department of Social Work connected with SCSU to bring the simulation to her campus. Dr. Harris and her colleague Prof. Rebecca Wade-Rancourt organized the event.

Badges which give students their "identity" for the simulation

Badges which give students their “identity” for the simulation

Prof. Wade-Rancourt has found the simulation to be an incredibly useful tool for students. “As a participant, it is extremely powerful and helps people to really have the experience of poverty and understand that best intentions do not equate success,” she said. By getting a better idea of the experience of poverty, students will be able to work more effectively in their future careers. She encourages students to fully commit to the simulation. “You have to go in and just do it and not try to take the social worker aspect or nursing aspect, just be that person,” she said.

Students who have participated in simulations have called it an eye-opening event. “I’ve been impressed by the depth of their experience. You watch them walk away with really changed perceptions on poverty…Students who didn’t truly understand poverty outside of its definition really felt like they were in it and could feel the struggle,” said Prof. Wade-Rancourt. Dr. Tomczak has said his students report an increased empathetic attitude in general. “We believe that this furthers our university’s mission of social justice and service for the public good,” said Dr. Tomczak.

The simulation is especially powerful because it is so active. This particularly benefits students with certain learning styles. “Any time that we can supplement lectures and papers with more hands-on activities, it reaches the students who learn best that way. Having the different learning styles addressed throughout really makes for a strong education for the students,” said Prof. Wade-Rancourt.

Participants at one of SCSU's poverty simulations

Participants at one of SCSU’s poverty simulations


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