A couple years ago, I participated in a poverty simulation by Etch Empathy. Here are some lessons I learned, and some reasons why I would recommend such a simulation for you, your family, and your friends to experience.

Let’s face it. Compared to others in developing nations, our lives are pretty easy and comfortable. We don’t have to live or work in hazardous or life-threatening environments. Getting sick or missing a day of work usually won’t ruin us. We don’t have to trudge 8 hours a day just to gather water; or collect and burn wood because we don’t have access to electricity.

Yet, it’s so easy to forget how fortunate we are. And sometimes, we need a reminder.

The Etch Empathy Poverty Simulation

In the Etch Empathy poverty simulation, we were grouped into “families” where we had to “work” by making and selling a commodity. What was this commodity? We had to make paper bags out of newspaper and glue. Sounds easy, but….

Each day, we had a quota to meet. The bags had to be perfect in order to sell them at “the market”. If they were flawed, they were tossed. Just like in a real market, the exchange value of the bags would fluctuate each day, making our earnings unpredictable.

Despite the time pressure (each day was a 15-minute timed session), we had to earn enough on a daily basis to 1) pay rent, 2) feed our family, and 3) send our children to school.

The group I was in never missed a single payment. But early on, there was another group that ran out of money, so they had to borrow from the loan sharks.

After several more “days”, a different group ended up being evicted to live underneath a bridge.

After witnessing this, our group decided to stop school for one of our two children in order to make more money. This, however, meant that we sacrificed the future of one child for the benefit of the other child and the rest of the family.


Lessons from the Poverty Simulation

Here are some of the lessons I learned from the simulation.

1. People in poverty are often born into it. Probably the best predictor of poverty is where and to whom you were born. It has nothing to do with merit, talent or skill. It’s a genetic and social lottery that’s pure luck.

2. When living in poverty, plans are only short-term. Life becomes all about survival on a day-to-day basis. Other than sending your children to school, there’s no long-term or emergency planning.

3. Temptation is everywhere. Although the Etch Empathy simulation didn’t really introduce consumer temptations and distractions (e.g., the option to buy a mobile phone or junk food), there were other subtle temptations.

For me, I was tempted to steal another family’s bags so that our family could send both children to school. At the marketplace, I was tempted to steal money. I was also tempted to rally a group of people to take down our slumlord (pictured standing below). Of course, I knew the role-playing would end in a couple hours. But in real life, such things like stealing and violence are quite common in impoverished areas. Besides lacking basic needs, many impoverished people live in constant danger or harm.

4. To break out often means great sacrifices. Our group had to sacrifice the future of one child (we needed her labour) to keep the family afloat. But another way of looking at it is that one child’s sacrifice enabled the other child to go to school. Through education, that child might break out of the poverty cycle. If you or your parents/grandparents came from poverty, chances are that you also had someone make a great sacrifice along the way. And that someone is, in part, responsible for your life today.


In Conclusion

It’s easy to look at an impoverished person’s situation and believe that he/she, in some way, deserved it. It’s easy to think that you, if put in the same position, would have broken free by your own merit or talent. We forget how living in poverty, under the constant stress of eviction or starvation, can lead to lower IQs, more health problems, and desperate, unthinkable acts.

And it’s even easier to forget how good we have it, and how fortunate we are.

So for these reasons, I think participating in a poverty simulation is a great, eye-opening experience. It will reset your expectations, give you new perspectives, and fill you with gratitude toward the many people who make your current life possible.

As a side note, Etch Empathy regularly conducts workshops for companies and schools. They also have many outreach programmes throughout the year. The simulation I participated in was one of those programmes. For more information, please visit their website.


[NOTE: This is not a sponsored post for them. They don’t even know I am writing this!]

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