Last week I finally had the chance to volunteer for United Way of Winnipeg’s Poverty Simulation. Living on the Edge is a unique experience giving participants a glimpse into what life could be like living in poverty. It is designed to reflect the experiences and expenses as accurately as possible for the city the simulation is held in. The simulation is a fairly complex and intensive planning process requiring a full-time staff member at our United Way office who recruits approx. 15-20 volunteers per session and around 40+ participants.

The experience takes about three hours to complete. One hour for set-up and an overview so participants know what to expect. For some, the experience can feel goofy and silly acting out their “characters”, for others it can be emotional and overwhelming as they face multiple barriers trying to survive. The second hour is divided into four 15-minute weeks so participants experience a full month living in poverty. The last hour is a chance for volunteers and participants to share their experiences and debrief the process.

Participants are all given characters and some have families while others begin the process as homeless and living in a shelter temporarily. They could be pregnant, employed/unemployed, addicts, single/married, disabled – just like me or you. They could be kids, parents, or seniors. Everyone starts out with a bit of a story – maybe a dad became injured and can’t work, a kid recently got into trouble and is in jail, someone was evicted, etc. As the weeks go on, participants are randomly given “surprise” cards with good or bad news, just as life sometimes throws you for a loop. Everyone has different tasks they have to complete – go to work, look for a job, attend school, and pay the bills on time.

I have desperately wanted to participate in Poverty Simulation for awhile now. The experience was created in Missouri and there are very few United Ways in Canada actually it – still pretty cutting edge! Even though it can be much simpler to fall into a life of poverty than people tend to think, it is still very difficult to convey the hardships and barriers people face through a brochure or speech. Living on the Edge gives United Way the chance to engage our community members further than we have before and show them the impact their support can have. In no way can we accurately convey this life in just an hour, but hopefully a small portrayal will help deepen the community’s understanding.

Some of my favourite comments I heard during the debriefing:

  • People often forget about the “working poor”. Many people are working very hard – even more than one job – but they face so many barriers to move themselves out of poverty.
  • There is a very real stigma that comes with this life. People automatically think you are irresponsible because of the situation you are in.
  • Services are not as accessible as people think. Paying bills online is simple when you have a laptop or computer skills, but often people living in poverty end up standing in line or filling out endless paperwork that takes valuable time away from their family or job search.
  • The way you think can change as time wears on and life becomes harder.  People lose patience quickly and the temptation to steal increases, but once you get a bad name for yourself it is difficult to find a job. One mistake during a tough time can have a long-term impact.
  • Having a family made the experience bearable. Even though it would have likely been simpler to survive as one, having people to come home to and discuss problems with made it easier to keep going.

Can’t attend a poverty simulation yourself? Try a different online version offered by the Urban Ministries of Durham.

  • girlwiththeredhair

    Awesome recap. I really hope I get to try this one day soon!