Chester County organizations to host ‘poverty simulation’

The simulation is intended to be a role-playing experience designed to give participants a glimpse of what someone may experience living a month in poverty.

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Kennett Area Community Service (KACS) and the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness are hosting a role-playing event where community members “experience” the challenges of living paycheck to paycheck. It’s called a “poverty simulation.”

“This is not a game,” said Cheryl Miles, community housing development director for KACS. “This is an opportunity for people to get a snapshot of what a person may experience.”

The event will begin with a 30-minute orientation and end with a debriefing. The simulation itself will reduce four weeks of living in poverty to an hour, with each week lasting only 15 minutes.

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In those 15-minute “weeks,” people will be assigned a family role and given tasks, such as going to work, traveling to the bank and returning home to their group.

“They will be given responsibilities to take care of their families and resources — or not — to be able to meet the needs of their families,” Miles said. “And they have to use those resources with the various different systems and services in the area to be able to take care of their family.”

The free event, which is being orchestrated in concert with several other partner organizations, is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 13 at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Unionville. Registration is required.

Robert Henry, administrator for the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness, said the event achieves three goals: It raises awareness, builds empathy and sparks a change in participants.

“Folks can learn how to advocate for policies and solutions that address the issue, that address poverty,” Henry said.

Addressing the criticisms, shortfalls of poverty simulations

Poverty simulation is the brainchild of the Missouri Community Action Network, and it has taken off nationally as a public education tool.

However, the practice has garnered criticism for gamifying poverty, reinforcing social stereotypes and failing to prove its efficacy among people experiencing poverty — especially when poorly implemented.

Most notably, in 2023, a country club in an affluent Chicago suburb received national attention and pushback for scheduling a poverty simulation event, with some critics categorizing it as reductive and tone-deaf.

Miles said that the orchestrators of the planned simulation will emphasize to participants that the experience is not a game or an attempt to minimize someone’s circumstances.

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“I think that’s why the debriefing is so important, so that when we realize that people may have taken things out of context that we can help to be able to give more information so people can walk out with a better understanding of what it is that they experienced,” Miles said.

The upcoming event in Chester County will not be the region’s first run at the program. There have been a few of these events in recent years.

“Of course, you can’t really understand someone’s experience or journey through this, but I know having done several [poverty simulations] now — we have seen it in the ones we’ve done — we’ve seen some real changes, I think, happening in people’s mindset in the room and from some of the feedback we’ve got,” Henry said. “That’s why we continue to support these and do them here.”

State of homelessness, poverty in Chester County

Approximately 6% — or about 30,000 residents — in Chester County earn an income below the poverty line, according to Henry.

“We see where high housing costs and poverty meet. The result is homelessness,” Henry said.

He said there is concern about the tally’s direction. While the county has made progress in reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness over the past decade, the number has crept upwards in the last few years.

“There are those who unfortunately the result is homelessness, but there is a significant amount of people who are still struggling to not be homeless, right,” Miles said. “So, when you look at the county statistics and when you look at the cost of housing — specifically for people with low income, it would be very difficult for them to pay with the average rent in Chester County, which is about $1,600 a month.”

The median household income in Chester County is $118,000.

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