Understanding poverty through role playing

“Will work for food.” These words are seen so often that they have almost become a cliché. Desperate, woebegone, and often dirty individuals sit on street corners and in doorways, sleeping under newspapers or in cardboard boxes, begging for food. Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners (PSVP) is a collection of volunteers dedicated to effecting long-lasting change in the community, which includes trying to stimulate support for the fight against poverty.

On January 13, PSVP organized a poverty simulation at the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Student Union. Area residents from all different backgrounds, races, and family histories entered a situation in which they were forced to simulate the lives of “people on the edge,” as PSVP calls them. Participants made everyday life decisions regarding privileges that most people take for granted, such as eating. For example, in order to get food, participants had to pawn fake items such as televisions for small amounts of cash.

Take a walk into downtown Oakland, and there will most likely be someone begging for food or money. Take a trip into any city, big or small, and poverty is virtually everywhere. The reality is that poverty in America is a major issue. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a family with three persons, two of whom are under the age of 18, is considered to be under the poverty level if its gross annual income is less than $15,735. In 2003, 16 percent of Allegheny County residents were expected to be below the poverty line.

It is safe to say, then, that most people have never experienced poverty as destitute and hopeless as is seen on many city streets. But maybe people take what they have for granted. People on the street are often seen as having ruined their own lives through lack of motivation to work, incompetence, drugs, or various other situations; poverty is often viewed as a choice. In contrast, many people are poor due to circumstances beyond their control.

Terry Beggy, director of PSVP, aims to show the difficulty in the lives that these people lead. “Our sole purpose is to get the conversation going about what life is like living on the edge,” Beggy said. “This is the third simulation we’ve done. We are working to find partners to host other ones throughout the course of the year.”

Beggy talked about the need for people to try to understand the lives of those who are “living on the edge” through simulation and role-playing. “You wouldn’t think that a 45-minute experience would be meaningful or lasting or have … an impact on you, but the experience stays with you and makes you really stop and think about the situations of the impoverished.”

Emily Lawrence, a Pitt sophomore, had a different outlook on poverty at the end of the event. “I didn’t realize that once you are in a situation like that, it’s extremely hard to get out of. It’s almost like you can’t think about things in the distant future. You are only trying to get through the day. It’s really a vicious [cycle] that is hard to defeat.”

Beggy also spoke about the government’s lack of action in the fight against poverty. A major example she chose was the future cutbacks in the Port Authority Transit system. “Most of the people who use the bus system are the working poor who cannot afford other means of transportation,” Beggy said. College students, according to Beggy, who also help constitute the “working poor,” will definitely feel the impact with the demise of the 28X. The 28X is a straight-forward, easy, affordable way to get to the airport, whether to fly out for an interview, visit a friend, or go home over vacations. As some students pointed out, a one-way ticket on JetBlue from Pittsburgh to New York often costs less than taking a taxi from Carnegie Mellon’s campus to the airport.

It’s always in the hands of individuals to make change happen. PSVP is doing just that, one volunteer at a time.