Empathy. We all have it to varying degrees. Perhaps a deeper understanding comes from shared experience. Urban Ventures’ poverty simulation provides just that by having participants “live” a 90-minute month as a family on a very limited budget.   

Around the outer area of the room tables are set up in “life stations,” such as housing, job, childcare, transportation, healthcare, food. Strangers sit quietly side-by-side before the game begins, quickly bonding as families of five are formed.

Families are given member roles, worksheets, money, and a time limit to make it to all stations. The goal of the exercise is to make it through the month with money left over. But as in real life, there are unexpected situations. Twice during the exercise each family deals with the unforeseen: a job loss, car repair, or illness.

What started out as a fun game quickly turns into serious business. The facilitator gives hints and second chances as she goes from family to family checking on progress.

Bits of decision-making discussions are hurriedly taking place.  “This is so stressful!” “We just don’t have enough money to buy a car.” 

When the “month” is over,  reactions are varied. Some families end with a tiny bit of money left over; those families are calm and knowing. Some families had several tough breaks: no extended family to help with childcare, one family member had to work two full-time jobs, another chose housing over transportation and lost a job due to an impossible commute. Those families are a bit disconcerted and become circumspect.

The simulation moves participants from theoretical empathy to deeper understanding. “The light bulb goes on for many [exercise participants],” says Kyle Boyes, facilitator.  “People aren’t ‘poor’ because they are lazy or somehow less capable, but because there is this crazy network of circumstantial and structural obstacles that make it really hard to move ahead.” 


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