Poverty Simulation Opens Eyes at SLU LAW

October 7, 2014

Most days, Paige Blumenshine is a second-year student at SLU LAW studying for a career in health law. 

On September 26, though, Blumenshine was an eight-year-old boy whose family had just been evicted from its home.

Blumenshine was one of nearly 60 SLU LAW students participating in a poverty simulation administered by the People’s Community Action Corporation in SLU LAW’s Riethmann Pavilion. Now in its second year at SLU LAW, the simulation aims to give students a better understanding of the hard choices that people living in poverty are forced to make.

How it came about

SLU LAW Director for Multicultural Affairs and Outreach Lisa Sonia Taylor said in recent years SLU LAW has offered programs for the 1L and 3L classes as part of the Deline Ethics and Professionalism Program. Taylor brought the poverty simulation to SLU LAW last spring through a desire to have a component of the Deline program for second-year students.

“We talked about doing a program that engages students with the concept of cultural competency and diversity,” Taylor said. “We think that’s an important part of legal ethics and serving the community.”

After receiving positive reactions to the simulation last spring, Taylor contacted Professor Christine Rollins about including the simulation in the syllabus for her Legal Profession class entering the 2014-15 academic year. Rollins, who partook in a poverty simulation several years ago while working with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, jumped at the chance.

“I remembered the impact that had on me to understand the clientele of Legal Services,” Rollins said. “I really wanted my students to understand why a client at some point might make certain decisions, and to keep an open mind that those choices are sometimes really made out of survival mode and not because they can weigh two options.”

Explaining the simulation

Upon entering the simulation, each student was given a character to play. These characters ranged from young children to 17-year-old heads of households to 85-year-olds living alone. The simulation was broken up into 15-minute “weeks” during which each individual was given certain tasks to complete, such as going to work or school and paying bills.

The pavilion was set up with groups of chairs in the center of the room representing participants’ homes, and the borders of the pavilion were lined with tables set up to represent different organizations, businesses and services. Each participant was given a limited income and a few transit passes, and could only move from one point to another using a transit pass.

“The purpose of the transportation passes was to keep them thinking, getting from here to there is about more than just getting up and walking,” Taylor said. “Many young people spend time in jail for jumping turnstiles. It’s not about wanting to get away with it. Sometimes you just don’t have the money for it. “

If the participants couldn’t meet their obligations, they had to face consequences. Often that meant being evicted or being arrested.

What it was like

3L Jason Bussey, like a majority of the individuals in the simulation, was evicted from his home after failing to pay his rent on time. He said he actually felt lucky, though, that he still had a car and an income that could help him get back on track. Many other families weren’t so lucky.

“I was more secure because at least I had a source of income and a means of transportation,” Bussey said. “Despite getting evicted from our home and sleeping in our car, we were on our way to get our house back.”

Blumenshine said the simulation gave her a better understanding of the tough choices faced by people living in poverty and the impact they can have on an entire family.

“Although the simulation used fake money, and the scenarios were fake, I was still able to feel the sadness, anger, frustration and despair that many people living in poverty feel,” Blumenshine said. “I now have a better understanding of what people in poverty go through, the struggles they experience to get by, and the reasons they make some of the decisions that they do. I feel more aware about different issues those in poverty face, which will help in the future as an attorney whether it be in practice or in my pro bono work.”

2L Kyra Short said she learned quickly a person’s life can spiral out of control after just one run-in with the law.

“Our criminal justice system's criminalization of poverty perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” Short said. “Persons living in poverty are constantly in survival mode and are faced with very few options for maintaining their survival. Breaking the law is sometimes viewed as the only option for persons living in survival mode.”

A special component of the simulation was that all of the businesses and services were operated by low-income clients of the People’s Community Action Corporation.

“(The volunteers) have lived this, and a lot of what they do in the simulation is acting out things that have actually happened to them,” Taylor said. “They aren’t just making it up.”

Reflecting on the experience

The week following the simulation, Rollins hosted an in-class debriefing session for the students to talk about some of their takeaways from the simulation. Students were encouraged to talk about some of the decisions they made, the thinking that went into those choices and what they learned from the process.

“I was really impressed when we debriefed in class that the students really got it,” Taylor said. “They really came away with a sense that this matters. That sort of empathy really matters in the practice of law.”

Taylor said students came to the realization in the simulation that they had to think about making decisions with a completely new sensibility than what they would in their normal everyday lives. Rollins said witnessing these realizations was encouraging.

“I was heartened by the impact and the thought provoking nature that this simulation had,” Rollins said. “You could tell they really had done some reflection about this. They had internalized who their characters were and how and why different choices were made.”

Rollins argued simulations like this would be a valuable experience for law students everywhere.

“I think all law students across the country, not just here at SLU, should have some type of experience that takes them out of the world that they grew up in to experience a situation that’s legal in nature, but in the sense of how it interacts with the legal profession,” Rollins said.