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Poverty Simulation Forces Students To Make Tough Decisions On Day-To-Day Things

Each semester since last summer, the University of Texas Health Science Center has been giving students an extra dose of the real world. Rather than relying on books and tests to educate nursing and medical students, professors thought a “day in the life” of someone living in poverty might help them relate to patients better.

The exercise is what they call a "poverty simulator" and attempts to portray real situations of people on restricted incomes.

“If you are not aware how many people face poverty, how they are challenged by transportation, by fear because they don't want people to know just how restricted they are for finances, you can actually build up their defenses by the way you ask questions,” said Marion Donohoe, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at UTHSC.

The demonstration consists of 15 minute intervals that represent one week. Students will experience a month's worth of having to work with limited resources to live.

The exercise comes complete with a grocery store, pawn shop, jail, and other social services that people typically depend on for their needs.

“They have to go to work, or school, depending on their age, they have to pay rent, buy groceries, pay utilities, do whatever they need to do,” said Donohoe.

The idea came from the Missouri Community Action Program, a coalition of agencies that advocates for low-income families in policy and program development. But local leaders added an element to the demonstration -- a measurement to measure a student's ability to strategize and implement new concepts into their practice.

Brian Machi is a medical student who will graduate in May and this is his second time to participate in the exercise. He first role-played a person in poverty but this time he is the sheriff who has to arrest people. He said the experience has given him an appreciation of the real struggles people face.

“You think it's going to be easy to just pay all your bills,” he said of his first experience. “No, but then things pop up like you get robbed or your car breaks down.”

Graduate student Mary Ruesewald was found at the pawn shop, negotiating a deal to sell her grandmother's heirloom wedding ring so she could buy food. The pawn shop worker didn't bow to her pleas for more than $90 for the ring, saying he couldn't sell sentimental value. They agreed on $95.

“It's very challenging to come up with all the money I need to survive,” said Ruesewald, taking a break from the role-playing to answer a question.

UTHSC is now offering the program to other nonprofits that have staff members who interact with people in poverty. Because of the expense, time involvement and personnel who put the program on, there is a $3,000 charge. But, it can be invaluable in understanding people from all walks of life.

“People try really hard when they're living in poverty,” said Donohoe. “They can be very resourceful, but they're not going to tell you all of their struggles, unless you have some way of showing them that you're empathetic and understanding of the challenges.”

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.