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How the Simulation Works

Developed by the Missouri Community Action Network, the poverty simulation involves participants who take on the roles of members of up to 26 families, all facing a variety of challenging, but typical, circumstances. To start the simulation exercise, each “family” is given a card explaining its unique circumstances. It is then the families’ task to provide food, shelter, and other basic necessities by accessing various community resources during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.”


In addition, about 20 volunteers - preferably people who have experienced poverty - play the roles of resource providers in the community. This allows individuals who have firsthand knowledge of poverty to bring their perceptions to the exercise.


The Community Action Poverty Simulation is conducted in a large room. Participants are seated in family groups and community resources are located at tables around the perimeter of the room. Volunteers work the community resource table during the simulation.


The activity lasts about three hours. This time frame includes an introduction and briefing by the facilitator, the simulation exercise, and a guided debriefing in which participants and volunteers share their observations and insights from the activity.


Role of Volunteers

As mentioned above, the volunteers are seated at tables around the perimeter of the room to staff the various resource tables. Examples of the community resources include a school, an employer, the bank, a health clinic, a social services office, the police department, etc.


A significant number of volunteers are required. The simulation cannot function without them.


  • 20 volunteers are needed

Volunteers are given a brief orientation separate from the participants who will be taking on the roles of family members. Volunteers have ample time to walk around and look at the various resource tables and to sit at their own table and go through their own packet of materials. A facilitator is available to answer any questions.


Volunteers have the option to either embody the role authentically with their own personality or to engage in a bit of acting. For example, a volunteer serving as the owner of the pawn shop might pretend to be a boisterous personality and haggle with the customers. The volunteer working at Community Action might pretend to be overworked and unclear about policies.


Following the simulation, volunteers participate in the debriefing session. They often have a very interesting set of perspectives.

Volunteer Recruitment

Community Partners

Community Partners who request a Poverty Simulation facilitated by OSU Extension should plan to recruit 20 volunteers. Volunteers must be at least 18 years of age.


While Missouri Community Action Network prefers that volunteers be people who have experienced poverty, this may not be a practical option. The following may be willing to serve as volunteers.


  • Agency clientele, particularly those with success stories to tell who would be willing to assist your agency in this way.
  • Agency board members and their spouses.
  • Agency administrators who are not planning to participate as family members.
  • Close community partners. For example, a United Way agency might reach out to other United Way agencies.

It is not uncommon for an organization to plan a poverty simulation as a training for its employees only to have an employee explain that they are uncomfortable with the activity because they have experienced poverty. Please be sensitive to these individuals, but suggest that they might serve in the role of a volunteer instead of a family member.

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