By Steve Orbanek
Marketing and Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend
According to the United States Census, 15 percent of Americans, roughly 46.5 million people, live at or below the government-defined poverty line.
For an hour this fall, Khardiata Mbengue and Teireik Williams could be counted among that group.
Mbengue and Williams were participants in a poverty simulation sponsored by the Office of Educational Equity & Diversity Programs and the Human Relations Programming Council.
The simulation is designed to help participants understand what it’s like to live in a low-income family, surviving from month to month. Individuals are grouped together as families and are tasked with providing for basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.”
For Mbengue, a junior biology major, and Williams, a sophomore communication and creative writing double major, the simulation was a humbling experience.
The two were paired up as husband and wife as part of the simulation.
I caught up with them to get their thoughts on the program…
Steve: Hi Khardita and Teireik. Thanks for taking the time to join me today. So, to start, why don’t you provide me with a general overview on the poverty simulation?
Khardiata: The poverty simulation is basically designed to help you get insight on how you would live if you were less fortunate or part of a low-income family. Going through the poverty simulation makes you realize how people often live in impoverished conditions even when it’s not their own fault. The system is against them, so they can never work their way up. You also realize that you’re never too far away from the life that they live. After college, we might be doing the same thing that we were doing in the poverty simulation.
Teireik: The poverty simulation provided us with an opportunity to have the same responsibilities of a person who is poverty stricken. It was really designed for you to live a day in the life of the less fortunate.
Steve: How exactly was the simulation set up?
Teireik: The room is divided into different circles, and each circle had chairs that represented a family. Surrounding the housesholds were all of the different businesses and organizations that you had to visit. You also had to purchase a transportation pass for anywhere that you would go. Before the simulation, they gave you a portfolio that had every aspect of your life: how old you were, your family’s history, your savings and your belongings. Everybody’s budget was different. We had savings, and everybody had possessions and things that could be sold for extra money.
Khardiata: And there was a cop, so you could go to jail if you did something wrong.
Steve: Wow, so you could break the law during the simulation?
Khardiata: Someone actually did that, and that person was the only one in the entire simulation who was able to pay their own bills. It just goes to show that it can be difficult to survive, even if you live an honest life. It puts you in a situation where you do what you have to do.
Steve: So, can you give me an idea of what a typical day was like for the both of you?
Teireik: She had to go to work, we had to take the kids to school, we had to pay bills, we had to sign up for benefits like food stamps, and we had to sell our belongings if we ran out of money.
Khardiata: I literally had to run to work, so I would be there on time to receive the full benefits of my work. Even if your child did something wrong at school, it would affect your whole life.
Steve: What do you mean?
Teireik: Our daughter got suspended at school, so one of us had to be at home to take care of her. Khardiata had to go to work, so I was unable go out and pay our bills, search for a job or apply for benefits.
Steve: It seems like the simulation required you to balance a lot of different responsibilities. How humbling was this experience for you?
Khardiata: It was incredibly humbling. It showed me that you should be grateful for everything you have because not everyone is as fortunate. We did this for an hour, but the fact is that many people actually live this life. That was eye-opening for me.
Steve: People living in poverty sometimes get a bit of a bad reputation. Did this change your perspective on them at all?
Khardiata: When I went into the Poverty Simulation, I had that same idea. I thought that if people are in poverty, they could work themselves out. But my opinion changed after living through it. We were doing all we could just to pay our bills and raise the kids, but it still was not enough. Expenses pile up on top of each other. As soon as you thought you had something handled, something else would pop up. That was a major thing that I learned.
Teireik: This simulation shows that not everyone is afforded the same opportunities, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. It’s just out of their control. It’s not necessarily their fault, but they get a bad reputation for it.
Steve: This was the second year for the Poverty Simulation at Behrend. Is this something that you would recommend to others?
Khardiata: Yes, definitely I would. It makes you think, what if this does happen to me? It’s not farfetched to think that it could happen to you. It’s a very realistic thing, and it humbles you a bit. As college students, we seem to think that we’re all struggling, but it’s not as bad as it seems.
Teireik: People should definitely experience it. If you get an opportunity to do something like this, why not? It’s much better to experience poverty through a simulation rather than for real.