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The Poverty Simulation: A Comment on Privilege and Blind Liberalism

I just received an email from my alma mater that concerned me. It was advertising a “poverty simulation” on campus, a three hour experience designed to show people who had grown up middle or upper class what it is like to be impoverished.

My first emotion was revulsion. Yet, I can imagine exactly what was going through their heads when the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Committee came up with the idea. They assumed that it would be a good way to teach people about the harsh realities of poverty in a vivid and memorable way. However, they clearly did not think about the bigger picture.

This is incredibly insulting to people who have actually experienced poverty. To someone who has cried them-self to sleep because they have not eaten today. To someone who has almost gotten used to the fear and anxiety of potential (very likely) homelessness if they can not find an extra $50 for rent, again. Someone who has a meal plan and a dorm to go back to at the end of the simulation will not feel any of these things. This experience the college is creating is about making rich kids feel kinda sad for a bit, but ultimately walk away feeling good about how much more “woke” they are now.

A simulation like this could never capture what it is truly like to live in poverty. Studies have shown that struggling to make it from one paycheck from the next can have lasting psychological damage, even changing brain patterns to default to short term, fight or flight type responses. Experiencing these conditions for weeks, months, or years yields a feeling of intense hopelessness. These and other effects of poverty make it harder to escape that situation than someone who jumps into that life but has other resources, so a middle or upper class college student would not likely think of these after a “day in the life.” One side effect they might not consider is clothing options. If you do not have enough nice clothes (even a few key pieces) it’s almost impossible to get a white collar job. Even someone with good experience or knowledge needs to look polished during an interview and show up to work looking similarly nice. If you don’t already have the clothes (or you once did but now they are ripped, worn, or the wrong size) it’s incredibly hard to get them. Nearly 90% of job interviews are decided within seconds of entering the space. This means how you look is a giant part of whether you succeed. Who would you want to work in your office, assuming you knew nothing about their backstories: Someone who comes in wearing dress pants and a nice shirt, or someone who walks in wearing a stained button-up and jeans? The “slob” of these two examples has a sparse closet and is working a minimum wage job they are overqualified for, barely making enough to buy groceries after paying bills, much less a professional wardrobe. This is just one of many examples of ways destitution is hard to escape.

I am not saying anything new or profound. There are many resources that explain poverty better than I could in a single paragraph. Between the internet and public libraries, free sources of information abound in the modern era. Autobiographies or personal testimonies from people who have experienced poverty, news articles exploring ways that society is not set up to lift up the poor, and TED talks about what happens to people in poverty are great places to start. If a college student can do this research and feel nothing, but rather needs to physically go into a room and pretend they are experiencing it, they simply have an empathy problem. They are too wrapped up in themselves to feel for others without somewhat literally walking in their shoes. I think that says something important about their character.

Read more here where I expand on these ideas.

Does what I have said resonate with you?

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I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.

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