Pretending to be poor

30 Nov

“[T]he 80 people standing with me in this auditorium are not poor. They’re just pretending to be” (

So begins Krissy Clark’s story about her experience in a poverty simulator. In “Pretending to be poor can change your perspective,” Clark asks, “Sounds well-intentioned, but what happened to good old-fashioned empathy?”

Good question.

Let’s talk about “good old-fashioned empathy,” of which I think there are at least two flavors: imagined empathy (I want to understand, and I assume my sympathy for you is first-person understanding and empathy) and experiential empathy (I can relate because I live or have lived it). But even experiential empathy isn’t Empathy, with an omniscient capital E. There’s no Certificate of Empathy guaranteeing that the bearer “gets” everyone else’s experience (in this case, of poverty) based on her own individual experience. While there are cultural norms and normative experiences of poverty, there’s also still unique perspective and circumstance. It turns out that walking a mile in someone else’s shoes entails a lot more than going that mile.

Questions about empathy considered, I appreciate Clark’s wariness, in a time when poverty tourism is social justice-trendy: see the various educational and philanthropic trips designed to do good now and in the future by exposing folks with resources to famine, poverty, drought and other debilitating conditions so that they “get it” and are inspired to make a difference.

Let it be known that I have no beef with making a difference or the show-the-problem approach (this is akin to wildlife programs that expose people to animals in order to make the lives of those animals more meaningful to people). What I challenge is the notion that you gain empathy by taking a trip or doing a simulation. There’s a fundamental, paradigmatic and visceral difference between chronic and episodic (with a clear end) experience.

All that said, I do think there’s something to these poverty simulations (including the fact that they don’t rely on actually impoverished people to represent The Impoverished and educate The Others).

During the simulation, you are assigned a pretend identity with specific circumstances (baby, recently released from jail, and wild cards like unexpected parking fines…) “Over the course of the next pretend month, which has been compressed into an hour for the purposes of the poverty simulation, [your] mission is to go to pretend work, get pretend paid, and find a way to pretend ends meet for [your] family.” Clark reports witnessing crushed optimism, genuine stress and even tears during the simulation.

And in some cases, the simulated experience can translate into real-world change. One man’s experience led him to change his property management company’s policy of requiring a security deposit paid in full upfront to an option to pay in installments. As one of his tenants puts it, “It helps to look on the other side of things.”

Another woman, who in real life has experienced poverty herself, learned from her participation in the simulation as a pretend boss what it’s like to be on the other side of the rules: “You hear so many hard stories that after a while you don’t know which ones are true, which ones are a little fabricated.  And in order for your own sanity, you don’t make eye contact.  You look at their paper work. You kind of like look through–right through–people.”

It seems to me that self-reflection applies to many of us, even those of us who haven’t heard so many, or any, stories. Case in point: how much eye contact do you see with-home folks making with homeless folks when they pass by on the street? As a group, with-home folks (who do include people who have been without homes themselves) do a lot of looking right through. So there’s something to say for a simulation experience, for those who are uncomfortable or unable to hold eye contact, if you will, in real life. Hopefully the simulation becomes a bridge that connects to the participant’s real life opportunities and responsibilities for action.

On that note, a final thought for those of you who are considering involving your students, co-workers or communities in a poverty simulation: consider the diversity you may not be aware of within the group. The simulation is designed “to help middle class folks get a better sense of what daily life is like on the edge.” I repeat: designed for middle class folks. I cannot stress enough how critical it is to set up and debrief any poverty simulation experience with a presumption of socioeconomic and class diversity within your group, unless you know for a fact that everyone you are inviting into the experience identifies themselves and their life experiences as middle class. Poverty is already a condition that we make invisible. Trying to get people (whom we assume are middle class) to see poverty is no excuse for making poor people within your own community invisible.

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