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Poverty Simulation Stirs Empathy And Emotions

Organizers of a poverty simulation held recently in northern Illinois countered the phrase "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" by asking "What if you don't have bootstraps?"

The room at the DeKalb County Farm Bureau was full of teachers, community members, and social service providers. There, the University of Illinois Extension and Live Healthy DeKalb County Food Security Council hosted a poverty simulation. Participants assumed a mock identity during the experience. That included getting a mock family and, like any family, a set of identity markers -- such as a grandfather with disability benefits or a daughter with ADHD. 

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Credit Sarah Jesmer
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A participant assumed the role of 52-year-old Warren Wiscott during the Poverty Simulation.

Although the situations are fictitious, it aroused real emotions. Stephanie Hardcastle played the part of a nine year old child. She said she attended the simulation after hearing about it through her school of nursing at Kishwaukee College.

"This is just surreal, it seems like something that wouldn't really happen in America because you don't live it. If you don't live it, it's not really real, it's just something you see on TV," Hardcastle said.

Hardcastle said the experience left her feeling saddened.

"I think if somebody who was living a decent life right now got thrown into [a] real life situation like this, they wouldn't know what to do," Hardcastle said. "That's the honest to God truth. They wouldn't know what to do. So I'm just thankful that I don't live like this and I hope I can help fix the problem somehow -- How do you do that though, you know?"

Facilitators hoped to arouse that very question through a call to action afterwards. But many attendees are already involved in community work, like Katie Jacobs. She is a family support specialist at the DeKalb County Community Action Department (DCCAD). It helps people with low incomes overcome the barriers that keep them in poverty.

Jacobs played the role of a service provider. She said it was an opportunity to experience the simulation from the opposite end. Katie and Deanna Cada came as representatives from the DCCAD.

"Up until Deanna gave me a chance, I was living in poverty and I was on the floor. I was living it every day and I was on the other side of these desks. And so I have a very personal connection with what the stress levels and the anxiety levels and the outcomes of being in poverty are like," said Jacobs.

Jacobs said at one point she was homeless while caring for a two year old child.

"So it was really important for me just to see how other people reacted to it who have never experienced that," Jacobs said.

Deanna Cada, who directs DCCAD, said she'd like to see the information have a broader reach.

"I wish everybody could do it, I think it's often the people who understand poverty who go to things like this, and boy do I wish people who had a different view point would be able to come to this and really see what people have to deal with," said Cada.

Cada said it was positive for her to learn about what community members think about her organization.

"I think the biggest thing I came away from with today is that people just don't know we're here, that they don't know community action exists within DeKalb County," Cada said. "And it's a struggle for us because, once again, people who don't need it don't think about it. And then when you do need it, you don't realize it's here."

The DCCAD works in partnership with a call center, 2-1-1, a non-emergency number available to anyone in certain counties across the country, including DeKalb County. It connects people with referral services for help paying utility bills or rent.

Heartland Alliance released a report earlier this year that said more than half of Illinois counties have notable or significant amounts of people living in poverty. The study looked at how poverty disproportionately affects people of color. Poverty simulations help participants like Hardcastle see past the numbers to find diverse realities.

"The best I can do is--like she said--to be compassionate towards those, volunteer, and donate as much as you can whenever you can," Hardcastle said. "And then just pray for change I suppose."