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University of Missouri

Experiencing Poverty for a Day

The School of Social Work’s poverty simulation class teaches invaluable lessons.

volunteers sort food at a food bank

Food banks, such as this one in Kansas City, Mo., are one of the resources students in the School of Social Work’s poverty simulation class must consider when working through the practical problems of low-income families. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Imagine life as an 11-year-old girl from a poor family. Your grandfather can’t work, so grandma keeps a job from which she should have long since retired. You scramble to catch the bus every day, but you can’t forget your home was burglarized last week and is now without power due to unpaid bills.

That’s a lot for a child to endure, but it’s just one role incoming graduate and undergraduate students play in the poverty simulation at the School of Social Work.

Grouped in fictional families, each student receives a packet detailing his or her situation. Families are then tasked with daily directives, such as getting to work, buying groceries or taking loved ones to the doctor. It sounds easy at first, but as instructors walk students through the logistics and roadblocks, the simulation becomes a real challenge.

Held at the beginning of every fall semester, the two-hour role-playing exercise orients students to social work by acting a demographic part that draws details from an impoverished central Missouri citizen. As the session gets under way, more than 90 students spend a noisy first hour locating family members, “living” through the workweek and pursuing goals.

You have assumptions going into it. I thought it would be fun and interactive, but that it would just reinforce things I already knew about poverty,” says Zoe Koch, a senior social work major from St. Louis. “It makes you think about things you take for granted. How am I going to get to school or work? What am I going to do with grandpa?”

Kalea Benner, associate director of the school, has noticed that even social work students hold stereotypes that poverty results from individuals’ lack of abilities or investment. The simulation helps to bust those myths.

It helps develop students who have an understanding of the need for social justice as well as economic justice,” Benner says. “Even people who work hard and do their best can still be in poverty, and that’s what a lot of students take away from this.”