What is a poverty simulation? I asked myself this very question when the Live Well Omaha team was first discussing the idea as part of our May 2019 member council meeting. At first I was a little confused as to how it all worked. 

  • How does the simulation allow the participant to understand the cycle of poverty?
  • Is it possible to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? 

In short; yes. The  poverty simulator, led by UNL Extension Educator Euwanda Jennings, answered some of my questions and left me with many more. I experienced just a small fraction of the difficulties and obstacles that people in our community face each day. 

I lived for 2 hours as part of the Olson family. 

There were four of us in the family, which included an older brother, a set of 13 year old twins, and a younger brother that was two (we used a doll to simulate the youngest brother.) Our father was incarcerated for a month and thus the responsibility to keep the family afloat fell on our older brother. Live Well Administrative Assistant, Erin Bearinger, happened to be in my family and took on the role of the oldest sibling. 

When I asked Erin about what it felt like to be the older brother trying to care and make ends meet for the family she said “as the older brother, I felt the pressure of maintaining the household (paying bills, buying groceries, etc.) while trying to attend community college. We quickly realized I may need to sacrifice attending school in order to provide for the family.” 

This pressure that Erin described was also something I felt but couldn’t do anything about -as a child in the family. The role I played was one of the 13 year old twins in the family. I felt helpless as a child. I, along with the person playing my twin sister, spent the majority of the “week” in school and by the time it was over there were only a couple minutes left. We couldn’t go anywhere without transportation passes and we depended on our older sibling for everything. It was a frustrating situation that became worse as the weeks passed. By the end of the simulation, we couldn’t afford to pay for utilities or for groceries and we ran out of transportation passes. If there would have been an additional week, my family would not have survived.

This is unfortunately the story of millions of families across our country. According to Poverty USA in 2017, 220,330 or 12% of Nebraskans were living in poverty.  At the end of the simulation I found myself asking why? 

  • Why is it so hard to access resources? 
  • Why do we make people have to jump through multiple hurdles only to deny them help?
  • Why are we not openly having conversations about poverty? 

This simulation was taken into action planning with participants and led by Euwanda. After the simulation concluded, we all shared how we felt isolated, stressed, angry and frustrated. I found myself feeling anxious and upset when I couldn’t pay for groceries or when the school teacher couldn’t help me with resources. It was frustrating but also eye opening.

The truth is that there is poverty in Nebraska and there is poverty in my community and it’s time to talk about it. Join Live Well Omaha’s coalition or a local effort in your community to talk about poverty and take action to ensure that our families, neighbors, work colleagues, classmates, and friends have the basic needs that are essential to a high quality and long life.

If you would like to host a poverty simulation please contact Ewanda Jennings at ejennings2@unl.edu or at 402-444-7804. Euwanda is a fantastic educator and the poverty simulation that she runs is one of the most educational and eye-opening learning tools.