College Faculty, Staff Experience Poverty in Simulated Exercise

Staff Experience Poverty
Nancy Baird, Ph.D., assistant professor of education and director of graduate programs, simulates paying utility bills via electronic bank transfer to Katie Pretzlav, former administrative assistant in the Office of Academic Affairs, while Amanda Means, admissions counselor, serves as a rent collector next door.

The Notre Dame College community experimented with the determination—and desperation—students and their families in poverty may experience on a monthly basis.

About one-third of Notre Dame’s students are in households with total incomes lower than $30,000. The poverty line is $20,000 for a family of three.

As part of in-service development sessions at the College, about 60 students, faculty and staff in partnership with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank facilitated a simulation in which members of the campus community assumed the roles of different families facing poverty. Some also served in the positions of agencies and businesses that may alleviate, or even exacerbate, destitution.

‘I reflect on this often, what it means to our students who experience poverty. We need to understand what it is like for students, and this is a great learning opportunity for our community,’ said Notre Dame President Thomas G. Kruczek.

During the nearly two-hour exercise, faculty, staff and students pretended to live and work—and in many cases to be unemployed— through four simulated 15-minute weeks. They, including some in the roles of children, were tasked with providing their families basic necessities and shelter.

In addition to roles of newly unemployed, some families in the model are recently deserted by the primary income earner. Some are homeless, and others are recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), either with or without additional earned income. Still others are senior citizens receiving disability or retirement or grandparents raising their grandchildren.

 The simulation provides the experience of living in families struggling in—or sometimes even struggling above—poverty and the unexpected circumstances that can deepen destitution.

“The object is to sensitize participants to the realities faced by low-income people,” said Nicholas R. Santilli, Ph.D., vice president for academic and student affairs and professor of psychology at the College. “We want this experience to promote reflection, to promote how we deliver our mission to students.”

In the simulation, one character was a law enforcement officer. Another was set up to be unlawful, encouraging youth to sell drugs to make money, robbing unsuspecting families and businesses and scalping counterfeit transportation passes, among other impromptu illegal activities.

Some of the improvised responses to the situations included Arne Weigold, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the College, playing a 10-year-old boy who started selling drugs to put food on the table for his family. Amy Kesegich, Ph.D., assistant professor of English, who was in the role of an elderly man retired or on disability—and with limited transportation tickets—feigned sleeping on the street to be first in line at the bank when it opened after being shut out by long lines and limited service hours the day before.

 Kruczek participated in a similar session at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank as part of Leadership Cleveland. The food bank was assisted in the exercise by Notre Dame staff and students in a public policy course taught by Ronald Eric Matthews Jr., Ph.D., assistant professor of political science and director of community-based learning at the College. The experience inspired the president to bring the simulation to campus.

“When I established this partnership with the food bank two years ago, I wanted students in the course to experience what is involved in trying to help those in poverty and what it is like to be part of the policies that may or may not affect the poor,” Matthews said. “Now, in bringing the experience on campus, students, faculty and staff have problem-solved together, worked together and laughed together.”

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