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Poverty in America simulation challenges views on public assistance

December 2, 2014

On Nov. 13, the Department of Social Work invited the public up to the third floor of the Hulman Memorial Student Union for a simulation of poverty. However, instead of showcasing the efficiency of Terre Haute Agencies, they sought to highlight the obstacles faced by those in poverty in order to challenge participants’ perceptions of those on assistance.

The event, which was free to the public with an optional (but appreciated) donation of a non-perishable food item, was both informative and interactive. In lieu of a presentation, participants were given a scenario that would require them to visit various in order to seek aid. At these agencies, students role-played as employees of Planned Parenthood, Bureau of Motor Vehicles and other real-life agencies. Participants were referred to agencies on a scenario-basis by a social work specialist at a primary table, and received a sticker for each table visited.

In order to give participants a truer-to-life experience, agencies were scattered around the third floor of Hulman Memorial Student Union and were only “open” on intervals. In such cases, focusing on a different agency while awaiting the opening of another agency was nearly impossible, due to many agencies pre-requiring each other. This creates a step-ladder effect, and the inconvenience it causes to some in the real world (where agencies can be miles away from each other) can be minor or devastating depending on one’s severity of need.

What makes it difficult for these agencies to coordinate? Rhonda Impink, an associate professor in the Department of Social Work, clarifies that problem on a bureaucratic level. “[These] organizations are state, federal and local governmental organizations as well as non-profit organizations. They are trying to serve the public, but that assistance is limited to their legislative mandates and funding levels—except for the township trustees who have almost no oversight—for governmental organizations as well as funding and administrative limitations for nonprofit organizations. Thus the service delivery system is not coordinated and does not work well together and this causes people who are having difficulty supporting themselves to have to work very hard in order to survive.”

“There are enough agencies”, said Max Holmes, a social work major and senior from Danville. “They just need to collaborate better. If they could even be condensed to where you can get multiple services in one place, then that would be awesome.”

There was also a tucked-away grocery store where participant role-players could purchase food. However, the types and amounts of food were restricted depending on which programs one was on.

“This is the first [simulation] they've had since 2006,” said Holmes. For inspiration, Holmes and others conducted an internet search on other poverty simulations as well as drawing ideas from Indiana State’s previous simulations. “This simulation is very different from the last. That was before the recession and this is after.”

Social work students are able to do 450 hours of internship in a local agency. In addition to that, the Poverty in America simulation has also been instrumental in preparing students for the scenarios they will face in their field of work.

“Learning about the different agencies, having to do research about them--if someone with a scenario comes to me, I know where to send them, refer them to, how to help,” Holmes said. “That will translate into my ability to help real people in real situations.”

"I love kids,” said Chanel Archer-Walls, a senior in the social work from Indianapolis. “This, for the most part, prepares me to talk to families and talk to parents, talk to single moms. Knowing my own story and knowing how hard it is helps me to be empathetic toward other families. It teaches me how to be a better social worker when I do graduate."

Both Holmes and Archer agreed that, beyond problems with the availability and distribution of services in the area, there are also problems in our society. Holmes said, “We need to treat everyone with compassion, dignity, respect, and understanding. Instead of judging, why not help? Seems a lot easier. Anyone can end up in that situation.”

The documentary Poverty in America, for which the simulation was named, played on a loop in a separate room, allowing participants to view it while waiting for agencies to reopen. However, while some were given the opportunity to experience poverty through a character or camera lens, some participants were all too familiar with their roles.

“The reality of poverty in America,” said Archer-Walls, “is this: one in five children lives in poverty. In 2010, fifteen percent of families live in poverty. The reality is that we're sending kids to school, two meals a day. We send them on break—they're not getting any food. There are parents that are working their butts off to have a roof over their heads, and even that's not even enough. Poverty is not fair. And in many places, it’s cyclical.”

According to Impink and the Indiana Youth Institute reports, when the focus is scaled to Vigo County, the child poverty statistic grows to one in three.

The Poverty in America video can be viewed online at




Contact: Dr. Rhonda Impink, associate professor, Department of Social Work, Indiana State University, 812-237-3611 or

Writer: Kristen Kilker, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or