Poverty simulation in gymIn a gymnasium at the Campus Rec Center, students congregate in chairs in the center of the room. Scattered around the perimeter are tables with signs that read, “Public School” and “General Employer,” among others. For the next two hours, this is the students’ community, and they are its citizens.

Each student is assigned a name and a situation by the facilitator. Some students are to be moms, some dads, some divorced and some single. Some have transportation and employment. Most do not.

The goal? To live a month in poverty.

While these simulations are used routinely by nursing and other health-related fields on campus, UAB’s business students are just beginning to participate. The purpose? To develop an understanding of the realities of poverty.

Eighteen Collat students participated in the most recent simulation, facilitated by the Office of Interprofessional Simulation for Innovative Clinical Practice (OIPS)

As each student navigated the simulation, they learned that getting the necessary resources for their assigned family was not simple. It often involved a web of interconnected challenges not under the student’s control, circumstances like sick children, unreliable transportation and law enforcement that altered or delayed financial progress. To make matters worse, students also had to battle time with a compressed schedule that represented a week and gave them just a few minutes to accomplish a laundry list of tasks.

poverty simulation with students

Jessica Cofield, a junior majoring in accounting, was assigned to be a full-time receptionist, mother of three, and the only working adult of the family. Much like the students around her, Jessica struggled to make ends meet.

“My takeaway from this experience is that working full-time and having to care for a family was incredibly difficult,” she said. “If the father figure had not been there to take care of the children, do the shopping, or pay the bills, I'm not sure how I would've got it all done.”

Other students agreed. One complained that his lack of transportation kept him from making it to his job.

Nearly all of the students ended each “week” frustrated.

“This experience showed me the difficult situations the working poor face,” Jessica said. “Why not ease the burden and show kindness and support for those living in poverty? Blue collar or white collar, we are all just people trying to get by in life.”

Business professors Eddie Nabors and Ave Jack pushed their students to participate in the simulation to enrich their understanding and empathy of the often-overlooked population.

Nabors teaches AC 590, “Taxation and the Working Poor,” a class in which students discuss issues facing those in poverty while gaining real-world experience by filing free tax returns for working families. He said he wants the simulation to be a launching point for critical conversations about class and empathy.

“We believe that the poverty simulation offers a truly meaningful experiential learning opportunity for the students,” Nabors said. “We hope it makes them more aware and empathetic to the pressures and difficulties facing those living in poverty and how it impacts some of their decisions and actions. Hopefully, this will help make our students better citizens and better business people.”