About 25 students were thrown in jail, got fired from their jobs, bartered with a pawn shop owner and tried to survive natural disasters Wednesday at the Washington State University Compton Union Building.
It was all part of a poverty simulation organized by the WSU Center for Civic Engagement to help students better understand the everyday challenges of being poor. It was the second time the CCE organized the event.
"It really simulates what it's like to be in a rough spot and have to make decisions," said Ben Calabretta, associate director of the CCE.
Each student was given a sheet of paper that showed how much money they had, how much education they have received and whether they are a U.S. citizen or illegal immigrant. Some were lucky and started off with plenty of money and a college education. Others were not so lucky.
Tables set up around the room represented school, the grocery store, public services, work and a pawn shop. In the back of the room was the "jail." The students' goal was simply to survive for three rounds, which meant finding a way to have enough money to eat and drink every round and get at least two immunizations.
Students very quickly had to plan their strategy, deciding whether they could spend their money on education right away, which cost money but improved their chances of getting a job. Or they could try to get their immunization early on, or head to public services for a voucher for free food and medicine.
At the grocery store, they had the option of healthy or unhealthy food, with the healthy food costing more. At the pawn shop, they could buy or sell bikes, cellphones or iPods.
Periodically, during each timed round, there would be an unexpected occurrence, such as a flu outbreak or a natural disaster driving up the cost of food.
The "work" station was an assembly line where the students made paper airplanes, but that was only if they were hired. The person in charge of the work station routinely turned people away for various reasons, including not having enough education. And once hired, job security was almost nonexistent. Employees were fired immediately if production on the assembly line was slow, for instance.
If they were not quick on their toes, people could be thrown into jail for loitering. They could also be jailed for selling stolen items at the pawn shop, being an illegal immigrant or begging for food.
Ryan Lazo, a community partnership coordinator for CCE, said the simulation is meant to help students understand the problems poverty creates that may be invisible to others. He said poverty in big cities, where many WSU students are from, is often obvious, but it is more hidden in rural areas. Someone who does not look poor, or even drives a nice car, could still be struggling with a crisis that pushes them into poverty.
Whitman County is the poorest county in the state, with a little over half the residents living below the poverty line, according to the CCE website.
Melanie Brown, director of the CCE, ran the grocery table and said the simulation demonstrates how problems can quickly compound for the impoverished.
"You run out of options and that doesn't take into account the emotional toll you go through," she said.
After the exercise, students discussed how they felt. One woman compared getting out of poverty to trying to solve a puzzle. Others noted the unique hardships immigrants face. Another student said it helped her appreciate how lucky she is.
Calabretta said participating in a simulation can help them get a clearer idea of the barriers people must navigate under poverty better than a simple lecture.
Anthony Kuipers can be reached at (208) 883-4640, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.