Students learn about poverty in Berkshire area with simulation

On Sunday, students from Professor of Economics Lara Shore-Sheppard’s tutorial on Poverty and Public Policy gathered with College students and members of the Berkshire community in Dodd Dining Hall to participate in a simulation organized by the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) to demonstrate local experiences of poverty and current resources and initiatives.

The simulation, run in conjunction with the Berkshire County Action Council (BCAC) and other organizations, consisted of four 15-minute “weeks,” where participants, each playing the role of a family member, had to attend or find work, provide their families with basic needs and pay off mortgages, loans, utilities and other costs. Each family encountered different scenarios and had to respond to changes in their situations as the simulation went on.

Professor Shore-Sheppard includes the simulation as a component of her course each year because it builds to a multidimensional understanding of the impact of government policies toward poverty.

“One element that is lacking from the research is a sense of what it is like to be poor and to try to function as a household head relying on such programs,” she said. She provided the example of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a social safety net intended to alleviiate food insecurity. Sophisticated statistical analyses of the policy provide insight into efficacy levels on a national scale: the gap between government assistance and a family’s needs and hard choices are not reflected in such studies. The simulation provided an opportunity for students to make difficult decisions when encountering such a gap; with limited savings, large amounts of debt and bills, insufficient coverage by government programs and a lack of awareness of available resources, many participants had to choose between food and mortgages or illegal drugs and loans.   

For Paula Consolini, director of CLiA, one of the most notable features of the simulation was the participation of Berkshire area community members who have either experienced pov-erty themselves or are involved in local anti-poverty efforts. Taking on the role of employer, banker, teacher, utility representative and other institutional positions, these guests enthusiastically provided an additional layer of realism.

According to Consolini, “The staff and volunteers of BCAC, HeadStart and other community workers who help run the simulation have appreciated the opportunity to give students a clearer picture of the challenges of living low-income in our region.” Following the simulation, the guests reflected on the students’ decisions and provided anecdotes from people they have worked with.

Many of the difficulties encountered in the simulation introduced locally specific nuances that many students were not expecting. For example, many participants forgot to claim receipts after paying bills or servicing loans; as a result, the bank returned to demand payment after families had depleted their savings and faced eviction. BCAC workers pointed out that as members of an electronic economy, students did not consider the importance of physical transaction records. On the other hand, many of those in the Berkshire area operate in a paper economy, which adds an overlooked complication. It was this level of understanding that Shore-Sheppard hoped to lend her students through the simulation, while recognizing the limitations and problems of trying to simulate poverty.

“It’s perhaps less insightful than something like working with local community programs over a long time period would be, but it is feasible for me to require students in an upper-level economics tutorial to participate in a two and half hour simulation,” said Shore-Sheppard. 

Berkshire County is the poorest county in Massachusetts. As a primarily rural district, the lack of strong public transportation infrastructure is one of the biggest obstacles faced by residents experiencing poverty, one that was addressed in the simulation as participants spent much of their savings trying to reach the different institutions. Representatives of the BCAC described clients who spent almost as much on taxis to reach their place of employment as they were earning; local companies that spend money to train new hires also often lose that investment when employees find it unfeasible to commute and simply do not return. The BCAC is working to find a sustainable low-cost model to alleviate these burdens; additionally, the College and CLiA have continued to provide subsidies for the bus system to improve frequency and coverage to facilitate affordable transportation across the county.

For Consolini, the simulation is an important part of CLiA’s outreach initiatives because it trains students who may one day design policy.

“The key to its value is that it combines exposure to the complexities of living low-income with guidance and insights from those working on the front lines. In an hour of being faced with poor circumstances and lousy luck, participants get a sense of why classic economic decision-making assumptions don’t always make sense,” said Consolini.

Hannah Levin ’16, a student in the class and an atendee of the simulation, found the experience to be valuable.

“Poverty is obviously not a game. Overall, however, I did feel as though the simulation did a good job representing the stress and overwhelming feeling that povery creates,” said Levin.