Many call it a life-changing experience—being part of the gritty reality of poverty. This is what happens when you are part of a Poverty Simulation. 

You can be part of such an exercise on Saturday, October 16 at Serrano High School in Phelan, or six weeks later on November 28 at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Riverside. A month in the life of someone experiencing poverty is condensed into four, 15 minute-periods (the equivalent of four weeks) in the pretend town of Real-ville. 

“Roles are based on real-life scenarios,” says Kathie Neff of Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside Counties.” Kathie has been organizing Poverty Simulations since 2010. Sixty to eighty people participate as community members who are living in poverty. Another twenty-five volunteers, usually veterans of previous poverty simulations, are cast as bankers, police officers, local business owners, employees at various social service offices, and others.

At the check-in table participants choose a face-down name tag corresponding to a “family.” You might be a single mother of two children, or an elderly pensioner living alone, or part of a family living in a homeless center. Along with the rest of your family you review your profile. The profile describes how much money the family has, monthly financial obligations (including child support), if you have a job and how much you earn, what you own, what you owe, and what kind of subsidies, if any, you are receiving from the government. Your profile might also include an incarcerated family member, or a disabled child.

There is also “The Luck of the Draw,” daily crises that everyone experiences, but can spell doom for someone living in poverty. These include your house getting robbed, a car breaking down (or getting repossessed), or a sick child home from school. These “Luck of the Draw” challenges come anytime during the exercise. 

Some participants go to their jobs, where they get docked wages for being late, or maybe sent home. Others are sent to a social services office where they fill out reams of paperwork and stand in line while county workers appear to do nothing. Afterwards they might have to seek out childcare. It is the daily challenge of someone for whom poverty is a reality. 

This is a pretend exercise, but within a short time participants report the symptoms of stress that accompany too many bills, too many problems, and not enough money. They become anxious, irritable, and they describe a tightening deep in their stomach. 

Most of the participants run out of money well before the end of the Poverty Simulation. Many are visiting the Real-ville Pawnshop to see what possessions they can liquidate for extra cash. Afterwards there is a debriefing session where participants share their experiences and changed attitudes. Even the volunteers are affected. 

Ken Sawa, CEO of Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside Counties, says that the Poverty Simulation is a valuable experience for many people. “We need less stereotyping and judgement of families with limited resources,” said Sawa. “Poverty is cruel, brutal, and mind-numbing, and those of us who have not lived it have no idea of the kind of stress and tension it can cause. This is an invaluable experience for stakeholders in the community—local government officials, businesspeople, those who are interested in their community. Addressing poverty in a meaningful and effective way requires a better understanding of the struggles people confront on a daily basis.”

These Poverty Simulations are conducted by Catholic Charities, at no charge to the participants. The simulations begin at 10:00 a.m. and conclude by 1:00 p.m., and include lunch. Adults and older teenagers are welcome to participate. To be part of either one of the Poverty Simulations, contact Kathie Neff at Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside Counties, at 909-388-1239, ext. 306. You can also register online at, or

Full story at Inland Catholic Byte.