Simulation brings reality of poverty to life

“You start to feel like everywhere you turn, something will make your life harder.”

For one day, a Kansas City corporate leader named Ryan became a new man—a 23-year-old community college student with teenage siblings to care for while their father was imprisoned—in addition to a 3-year-old son of his own.

“You start to feel like everywhere you turn, something will make your life harder. A lot harder than my real life is, even though we were doing the same things,” Ryan said. “There’s a razor-thin line between making it and falling behind.”

This role switch may sound dramatic, but that’s part of the appeal of United Way of Greater Kansas City’s Poverty Simulations—an interactive experience that puts community leaders like Ryan into a role-playing exercise that teaches them what it means to live on the brink.

These simulations are hosted by UWGKC throughout the year, and offer a unique look into the challenges faced by thousands of Kansas Citians every day.

Kim, a marketing specialist at a local nonprofit, joined as a participant of Kansas City Tomorrow, a civic engagement program for local business and community leaders.

“When I think about what’s possible in my career, and where I want to put my energy outside of work, it’s being part of solutions,” Kim said. “This event is perfect for like-minded people who want to get stuff done.”

The premise of the simulation is to promote poverty awareness, increase understanding, transform perspectives, and ultimately, inspire local change.

Alisa, from GEICO, said she was excited to participate. “It’s important to be involved in the community, and that’s something my company has done since we came to Kansas City.”

Alisa was in the same family as Ryan, and said transportation was the hardest part to coordinate—and pay for. At just $1 per bus ride, it initially seemed like a deal. But as her family began accounting for all four of its members making multiple trips per day, the expense and headache added up.

“It’s realistic, and shows you how privileged most of us are to have cars that get us where we need to be,” Ryan said. “We don’t have to think about this.”

From the outset, Ryan and Alisa clearly took their shared responsibility seriously, and although they had never met prior to the exercise, they quickly bonded over leading the family in a true-to-life way.

“If this were more than a simulation, we would have to stop living like this was our last week to live, with the short horizon in front of us,” Ryan said. “The people who are living this can’t focus on the future. They’re just trying to solve for today.”

Although the simulation is played out over the course of two hours using assigned roles, aliases and fake money, the outcome is very real. As the participants and volunteers wrapped up the simulation with a roundtable discussion, the room took on a serious tone. Very quickly, themes emerged.

For one, resources. Not only the lack of availability, but an uncertainty of how to get them and make efficient use of them. That’s not unlike the real world, where those who are living in poverty often don’t have the guidance or time to dig in and figure out a strategic way forward. Instead, the focus turns to survival. The clock becomes a devastating opponent, and time management defines almost every action.

“You’re at the mercy of the system,” a participant said.

“There were not enough hours in the day,” said another. “Each line we waited in, we felt more hunched over and beaten down by the situation.”

One volunteer was Sarah, a community volunteer who says she’s big into getting involved.

“I think the opportunity to try and understand a reality that’s outside of our own was very interesting,” she said.

To wrap up the event, participants, volunteers, agency representatives and United Way staff engaged in a conversation about the many ways it’s possibly to get involved and make a difference in Kansas City. Many enthusiastically committed to future volunteer events, and to recruiting family, coworkers and friends to get engaged. In the end, one outcome of the simulation was real impact: Hundreds of dollars were donated on the spot, ensuring members of the community would benefit from the morning’s simulation.

If your organization would like to participate in a future UWGKC Poverty Simulation, contact Brandon Calloway, Volunteer Engagement Manager, at Brandon.Calloway@uwgkc.org or 816-559-5749.