A highly-rated exercise that allows participants to ‘walk in the shoes’ of those in poverty, promoting empathy and sparking more useful, authentic responses to those living in need, returns to Salem this November.

“I remember feeling the stress in the room when the simulation was occurring,” says Kristen Aubert, who helped organize SAIF Corporation’s participation in 2014 and 2015. “People were scrambling, confused, frustrated and sad. It was a very moving experience to witness, and I heard many coworkers discussing it days and weeks later.”

SAIF, an Oregon workers compensation insurance provider, participated in the program because it knows that both customers and even co-workers may be facing the challenge of poverty, Aubert says. “An exercise like this helps us better understand what people are going through and act and react with more compassion.”

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Lori Beamer, co-founder of CoActive Connections, brings awareness to poverty through simulation training

November 10 will mark the 6th year an Oregon nonprofit, CoActive Connections, immerses people in the poverty simulation. Lori Beamer of Salem, cofounder of CoActive Connections and Director of Operations and Outreach, says, “Over 25% of children attending Marion County schools are experiencing poverty. So poverty impacts each and everyone of us, either directly or indirectly.” The Poverty Awareness Training “reveals the many myths and stereotypes that negatively impact Oregonians experiencing poverty,” Beamer says.

One little known challenge of need is the toll the condition of poverty takes on cognitive function. In a 2013 study published in Science, researchers from Harvard, Princeton and University of Warwick showed that the daily grind of want and frustration on imposes a mental burden akin to someone losing 13 IQ points.

In, Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function, the researchers learned that the simple act of considering a projected financial decision, such as how to pay for a car repair, affects people’s performance on unrelated spatial and reasoning tasks when they are living in need. Lower-income individuals performed poorly if the imagined repairs were expensive, but did fine if the cost was low – while higher-income individuals performed well in both conditions, suggesting that for them, the projected financial burden imposed no cognitive pressure.

“It appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity,” researchers noted in the study’s abstract. “We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.”

Research also shows that people in poverty face more bias and stigma because of the fact of their poverty – than people who experience prejudice on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation.

The simulation does not zero in just on those who experience homelessness. “People think about poverty and homelessness, but that’s not all there is,” Beamer says. ”In fact, most of the simulation is about folks who are economically in the middle strata of poverty. They have a place to live, they have a car, but many of these folks are truly experiencing poverty.”

In order to learn more, participants in the exercise play the role of someone in need by engaging with other participants as members of a ‘family.’ They navigate the daily challenge together, using whatever resources they have been issued to pay rent and utilities, eat, go to work and to school and access community resources. Participants ‘experience’ a month of poverty, which the organizers separate into four 15-20 minute ‘weeks.’

During simulation, for example, a mock ‘family’ with a specific income,  number of members and number of transportation passes might have an adult member arrive late at work and have her pay docked. Another family member might go to a pawnshop or bank and face challenges just as they learn their ‘child’ has been sent to detention for acting out or complaining about a test.

Beamer herself formerly experienced poverty as a single mom, but says, “I still learn things” from the training tool. “Because even though folks navigating poverty have a lot of similar circumstances – just like in everything else in the world, our experiences are unique.”

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Among the attendees in past years are educational institutions such as Chemeketa Community College, many school districts and Willamette University. The training, Beamer says, “allows these folks to have a deeper understanding of the experience of their students in poverty.”

Other typical participants in the 4-hour program include agencies such as Head Start, Family Building Blocks and Habitat for Humanity Oregon.

Sarah Rohrs attended a recent poverty simulation on behalf of KMUZ Radio. Rohrs particularly noticed how poverty impacts children and teens. “There were some teens (adults playing teens) in the simulation who dropped out of school to help their families make ends meet,” she says, “and there was one teen who said there were no services directed specifically toward them. Also, as adults scrambled to do everything they needed to get by – work, applying for aid, etc – the kids just got forgotten. They got taken away and parents were charged for neglect.”

Rohrs was also struck with the random nature of many of the problems people got hit with; “a costly home repair, eviction, school detention, pay docks for being late for work” that could heavily impact most people, and completely derail someone with few resources.

“The Poverty Simulation was such a moving experience,” says Diana Dickey, Ward 5 City Councilor. She first participated 5 years ago, in preparation for coordinating community wide events for an employer, and then again 2 years ago. Both experiences were valuable, Dickey says, and “each time was different, and I gained a different perspective… What became the most apparent to me both times I participated, was how much of a barrier the lack of transportation creates for someone living in poverty. It really shows how much of a cost there is to any mode of transportation, even bicycle and pedestrian. It makes you really think about these things in a way that you may not have thought of them before.”

Rohrs also gained a greater understanding of how transportation issues impact nearly every aspect of life for a person in poverty “and how little those of us with reliable transportation pay attention to or realize about the importance of transportation. It made the failure of the Cherriots ballot measure even more galling!”

Although CoActive Connections’ poverty simulation generally works with organizations that have a deep impact on people who live in poverty, Executive Director Melinda Gross believes that “the entire community should attend and learn more about poverty, [since] poverty’s effects can be felt beyond the radius of folks experiencing poverty.” She encourages every caring community member to take part.

“Poverty affects all of us,” she says. “It affects our community as a whole, limiting community potential and quality of life. We are living in a time where people are still being treated differently because of the color of their skin, their gender, and yes, their economic status. Until we reach a point where people – all people, can live together without blame, mistreatment, and discrimination, our community as a whole suffers.”

At some point during almost every simulation, it’s revealed that some of those involved are currently or formerly experiencing poverty. This is “ a very emotional experience for participants” Beamer says,” because poverty carries a component of internalized shame and negative experiences” that leaves a mark.

“The more awareness we can create around poverty,” Gross adds, “the more empathy, knowledge, opportunity, and kindness we can share with others in our community. That’s the kind of community we should live in.”