George Mason University
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George Mason University

CHHS Social Work Students Gain Practical Experience through Poverty Simulation

April 17, 2019

By Michelle Thompson

Stressful, frustrating, demoralizing, powerless—not the way a faculty member would traditionally want students to describe her class.  But in this case, Valerie Cuffee, instructor in the Department of Social Work and the director of the undergraduate social work program, considers this a success. This wasn’t a typical day in the classroom. During National Professional Social Work Month in March, more than 60 BSW and MSW students participated in a 90-minute poverty simulation—an experiential learning opportunity sponsored and facilitated by the Fairfax County Department of Family Services Community Action Advisory Board (CAAB)—designed to give students a glimpse of a month of living in poverty.

“Sometimes, from a point of privilege, we have no idea what people are going through. This simulation gives students the opportunity to see how difficult it is for families experiencing poverty to navigate across the various systems within their communities that actually do not serve them very well. We seek to increase students’ awareness of these issues so that they might recognize resiliency in families and help to empower them to improve their conditions and communities thereby carving a pathway out of poverty,” says Cuffee.

The simulation allowed students to play the role of an individual in a family living in poverty—each experiencing unique challenges (unemployment, disability, arrest, teen pregnancy) and victories (finding a job, negotiating a raise, securing affordable childcare). Each 15-minute segment of the simulation represented a week of living below the poverty line—rife with frustrations of navigating “the system” from trying to buy groceries when you can’t speak the language, paying your mortgage without a bank account, needing to pawn your stereo to pay utilities, or finding child care when school is out. 

In fact, more than 75,000 Fairfax residents live at or below the poverty line (which in 2019 is an annual income of $25,750 for a family of four), making it critical for those who work within the community to understand residents’ potential challenges in finding and utilizing social services.  Kevin Filbey, professional and organizational development director for the Fairfax County Department of Family Services, underscores the connection between the simulation and helping vulnerable populations address the social determinants of health, such as: access to health care, low-cost prescriptions, food insecurity, lack of employment, and homelessness. Filbey explains, “Our partnership with George Mason University is vital to delivering community education to understand and mobilize the resources that our community needs to help all families have what they need to succeed and thrive.” To help emphasize this point, food insecurity, homelessness, under- and unemployment were all common themes in the simulation.

Eviction noticesOne student assigned the role of a 14 year-old child in the simulation reported, “My ‘parents’ were always so worried about things like paying the bills, getting to work on time, and not having enough food that they never had time to help me with my homework. I felt like I was the only sane one in my family.”  More than one-fourth of the “families” received an “eviction” notice throughout the month and several “parents” simply could not feed or find care for their “children.”

As the final “week” of poverty concluded, it was clear that many resources and services available to the “families” went unused—such as vouchers for utility bills—because families were unaware or simply too busy worrying about daily life to take advantage of them. It also became evident that some of the “service providers”—such as the “QuikCash” payday loan company who charged 10%+ to cash paychecks and the “pawn shop” who cheated customers out of cash—did not have the families’ best interests at heart.

“We must always be mindful that we serve the most vulnerable populations. Our goal is to prepare our students to serve through a combination of the best possible academic and practical experiences,” says Cuffee.

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