Simulating poverty

31 Mar

Have you played Spent?

Key word: “played.” It’s in the URL ( for this poverty simulator, which is another reminder that some folks–too many folks–don’t have to “play” at poverty to understand the experience.

I do recommend this simulation to you, whether or not you yourself have experience or currently live in poverty–to notice what the simulation provokes in you. And I recommend playing out different choices, to see not only where the simulation leads you, but also what it feels like to make those different choices (ex. opting in or out of health care).

Now, if you’re thinking about using a poverty simulator with students or already do, I would add some recommendations:

  • Don’t assume that poverty is a new or unfamiliar experience for all of your students. Introduce the activity as an experience people understand and are connected to in different ways. (For example, I am one generation removed from poverty, but not the kind the simulation proposes: both of my parents grew up in Korea during the war and lived through starvation and homelessness. Getting a job with any kind of consistent pay, let alone health insurance, wasn’t an option for their parents, their older siblings or themselves. So while I myself have never lived in poverty, the people closest to me have.)
  • Let the students know that whether or not they’ve ever lived in poverty, they’re perspectives are no more or less valid than their peers’. Everyone’s experience is authentic. What we need to be mindful of is when we assume that our experience is the norm, and that our opinions are right, as opposed to just our experience-informed opinions.
  • Talk to the students about empathy, including what I think of as empathy simulation. That is, claiming empathy when I really don’t understand an experience because I think saying “I get it” is proof that I’m a good person. (See Mia McKenzie’s blog post on “being an ally” that has appeared in a couple of my earlier posts this month.) Sometimes, I really don’t understand your experience or perspective. And acknowledging that is a lot more respectful than editing, revising and contorting your experience to fit what I can understand.
  • Use individual reflection and journaling to help students process and think before they speak.
  • Ask students to notice their reactions (questions, feelings, impulses to act), where those are coming from (in their experience, identity, worldview) and what’s going on for them as they navigate their choices. (To start the simulation, you have to choose to play or “Exit.” Then, throughout the simulation, you can click “I can’t do this.” I wonder when and why people click this button.)
  • Address the idea that money = happiness (in The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner discusses how a baseline of money is a critical factor in happiness, but beyond that, more money doesn’t correlate absolutely with being happier). In other words, address a common, normative assumption that wealth makes us happier. Acknowledge the truth and misconceptions in that, as well as students’ perspective on their own experience and cultural norms surrounding the pursuit of wealth.
  • Connect the experience to a concrete “try today” or “try tomorrow” (ex. helping to educate when someone else says that people who are poor should just work harder, volunteering at a food bank…)

On that last point: if you’re going to educate about poverty, you have to empower student to do something about it, and not just to learn more about the issue. Learning more is important, but education without application can be demoralizing and even destructive. They may not end poverty (although I’ll still hope!) but they can stand up when someone says something classist. And that’s a real part of the problem that simulators like Spent are trying to solve.

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