UVU public health students learn to empathize with the impoverished

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Utah Valley University public health students experienced a month of poverty as the department faculty coordinated with Community Action Partnership of Utah to host a poverty simulation on Feb 8.

“The students in our program learn about health disparities and issues facing low-income populations in several classes,” said Sue Smith Jackson, assistant professor of community health. “We are hoping this simulation will bring a deeper level of insight and awareness to their educational experience.”

According to Community Action Partnership (CAP), about 76,000 people in Utah County, including 20,000 children, live in poverty. CAP hosts poverty simulations such as this in hopes of raising awareness of poverty in Utah.

Faculty members and CAP volunteers act as employers, social workers, pawnbrokers, utility bill collectors and others whom individuals living in poverty must confront.

Kelly Casey, a CAP employee, adds unexpected difficulty for some participants by rummaging through program packets left unattended and stealing imitation¬†social security cards and fake money. As the program’s appointed illegal activities person, her job is “to make the simulation a little more real.” She does not wear a badge like the other role-players.

Participants in the simulation are assigned to family groups and given certain roles to play. At each 15-minute interval, family groups end the “day” meeting in their home and preparing for their next task. The three hours between 9 a.m. and noon will take them through the struggles that families living in poverty face during a typical month.

“They will see situations of other people from a whole different light,” Karen Hill, a United Way resource development employee, said.¬†Hill’s role as the utility company representative included collecting past-due bills and shutting off electricity for some families. She hopes participants will understand poverty is “not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of situation and unforeseen circumstances.”

Kaitlan Marsden, volunteer coordinator for Community Action Services, said poverty does not typically seem how people expect it. “Poverty really does exist here; it’s just more hidden,” Marsden said. “If things don’t match our stereotypes, we often miss seeing them.”

Many families living in poverty, according to Marsden, are two-parent Caucasian families with at least part-time work. According to CAP’s research, 13.5 percent of Utah residents are living below the poverty line.

While this is UVU public health department’s first poverty simulation, CAP can readily bring the same program and materials to organizations interested in participating in their own simulation. Contact Community Action Partnership of Utah at 801.433.3025 for more information.

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