Poverty Simulation is an experience of a life time

On May 28th, I had the opportunity to participate in “Living on the Edge”, a poverty simulation tool hosted by United Way of Calgary and Area. The main goal of a poverty simulation is to have participants embark into a simulated reality where one can better understand the barriers and challenges faced by families and individuals living in low income and poverty situations.
Designed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, the objective of this type of tool is to provide some insights into the complexity and challenges of living in situations of poverty. The tool was originally created from an America perspective and context.  In order to create a more authentic Canadian experience, the United Way of Calgary as well as the United Way of Winnipeg, have modified the original materials by changing the names of service providers, various identification documents and income assistance specifications.

A poverty simulation can be described as a role-playing experience where participants are given a family role to act out during a period of an hour. This hour time frame is then divided in four 15-minute weeks, which is intended to replicate a month in the life of a family. There are up to 26 fictional low-income family scenarios, from single parents with one small child to seniors receiving AISH. The ultimate mission of each of these households is to provide food, shelter and other basic needs with a limited income. The simulation recreates the physical existence of agencies, service providers, business, government programs, and incorporates them all into an imaginary community, and attempts to simulate the one we all live in.
As the poverty simulation begins, the issues become apparent very quickly and the imaginary context of the simulation starts to feel real. I assume the role of an unemployed mother who has to look after grandpa. I also have a 15 year old daughter who goes to school and works sporadically and a husband who goes to work every day. As the month goes by, my husband and I have to pay our bills, pay the mortgage, put food on the table, pay for clothing and buy bus tickets. For that hour my simulated family and I tried to manage many things at once and attempted to meet our responsibilities, and at the end of our simulated month, we experienced difficulties in trying to keep on top of everything.

In this short but powerful one-hour journey, one experiences a form of transference and heightened sense of empathy and sensitization for persons’ facing such challenges. One can begin to understand some of the circumstances and challenges that many of the 148,000 low-income earners in Alberta might be faced with. I came to realize, through this experience, that people living in poverty have to work extremely hard and experience high levels of stress to provide for their families. They often have to make difficult decisions, such as paying the rent or buying food. This tool, is just that, a one-hour simulation and provides a brief glimpse into some of the day-to day struggles of what low income families might experience and how challenging life could be for many families that live with these types of stresses and challenges.

Poverty is complex and requires a comprehensive approach and requires a joint force to address it. Developing an understanding of the challenges faced by low-income individuals and families could be a great first step!


Karina Hurtado, Community Investment Specialist, United Way of the Alberta Capital Region