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Research: Poverty Simulation

News Story

College of Health Professions Assistant Professor Angela Northrup discusses a new approach to educating students about the realities of life in poverty.

They were either overworked or unemployed. Their days were too short, their responsibilities overwhelming. Some waited in line at the welfare office for hours, others hoarded their food stamps and pawned their valuables to make ends meet. Meanwhile their children were neglected at home. Facing eviction, some of the more desperate found themselves turning to crime.

Meet Pace’s newest class of undergraduate nursing students.

If it sounds like college students have it rough these days, don’t worry—these freshmen were actually involved in a simulation experience designed to educate them about the day-to-day realities of life in poverty. In the Willcox Gym in Pleasantville, various stations manned by volunteers were set up to represent a school, a bank, a welfare office, a police station, a grocery store, a homeless shelter, a pawn shop. Meanwhile, with play money and Social Security cards in hand, participating students took on different roles, such as that of a high school student, a mother with two jobs, or a father who was recently laid off.

When Assistant Professor of Nursing Angela Northrup, PhD, started teaching undergraduates at Pace, she was disheartened to discover that many of them had little concept of the reality of living in poverty. “A lot of students from middle-class backgrounds come in with this naive attitude that if you just pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you’ll be fine.” Of course, Northrup explains, dealing with low-income patients is an expectation of the job for nurses—which is why it was important to sensitize students to the realities of living in poverty.

Realizing that a real-life experience would be a much more effective method of achieving this than just assigning a book about poverty, Northrup was inspired to partner with Clinical Assistant Professor Elizabeth Berro to try out a poverty simulation designed by the Missouri Association for Community Action—billed “a virtual experience of life on the edge.” It wasn’t a trivial effort. The kit itself, which includes signs, props, a ton of papers, play money, name badges, and even homework for the children, cost them $2,000. Volunteers were required who were willing to work on a weekend. “We hit so many roadblocks along the way that we thought it would never happen,” says Northrup. “Where was the money going to come from? How do you get twenty volunteers? How do you get the students there on a weekend?” Almost miraculously, however, things started falling into place.

The kit was sent by mail—so heavy that the secretary who received it told Northrup, “You have a big box with a dead body in it.” Eventually, after a ton of preparation and a frantic search for volunteers, the simulation was ready. With the students assembled into family groups with individual character roles and detailed economic situations that they had to play out, Northrup blew a whistle at the gym to signal go.

At that point it was a scramble. With the simulation organized into four 15-minute “weeks,” there was a real sense of limited time in which to do everything that needed to be done: the kids needed to be fed and taken to school, the parents needed to go to their jobs (or find a job), the bills and the mortgage needed to be paid, etc. The point was to simulate a real life, with all of real life’s responsibilities, time constraints, economics, and consequences. “By the third round,” says Northrup, “the students were literally running to go where they needed to go.” But even hustling as hard as they could, many found themselves losing their jobs, becoming homeless, or hearing from child services. Approached during the simulation by a drug dealer offering work, “some found the potential for easy money unexpectedly appealing,” adds Berro. As the students were quickly realizing, sometimes the lack of time, money, and opportunity can make it virtually impossible for a family to stay afloat—bootstraps notwithstanding.

The immediate feedback Northrup and Berro got from the students afterward was promising, but it was important to know for sure that the simulation had served its purpose. Recruiting a nursing student, Colleen Spang ’15, to help collect and process the data, they used the Undergraduate Perceptions of Poverty Tracking Survey (UPPTS) to measure students’ attitudes before and after the simulation. The results were clear: following the experiment, students’ perceptions of people living in poverty improved significantly. Northrup and Spang went on to present their research project at Pace’s Fourth Annual Undergraduate Student-Faculty Research Showcase on the Westchester Campus, where they won top honors and were awarded $2,000 to attend a national conference.

Since last fall, the simulation has become incorporated into every first-year nursing students’ curriculum at Pace, and the difference is palpable. “The students get it,” says Northrup. “They get that you can’t just get by with nothing, with no resources. It’s not realistic.” Aptly, she draws an analogy to another game that involves play money: “It’s like playing Monopoly and someone else took all the property except for Baltic Avenue. The odds are so stacked against you—that’s what being born into poverty is like.”