What does it mean to be in poverty, or to be labeled as middle class or wealthy? The students in the Class of 2017 experienced real-life scenarios of what society can be like through the Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE) on Tuesday, March 15.
“The youth COPE is relevant for students in grades 7-12 because in the simulation, they are doing activities many students their age do like go on spring break, go to school, and get a car,” explained Heather Cunningham, the training director of Think Tank, the organization behind COPE. “We worked with several different partner groups, churches, and youth groups that helped us build the scenarios to make sure they were relevant.”
“I wanted students to understand that especially in Dayton, we are really geographically separated according to social class,” added John Wilson, a facilitator of COPE and a high school teacher at the Greene County Career Center. “On my way to work everyday, I see a big sign that says, ‘Homes for sale in the $140, $150, and $160 thousand dollars.’ What that means is that community has been designed for a very narrow segment of the population when we look at a socioeconomic class. Because of that, students have a really difficult time having and understanding empathy of what it is like to live a very well-resourced life or live a very under-resourced life.”
When the juniors arrived to the simulation, they were randomly assigned to be in one of the three socioeconomic classes - poverty, middle class or wealthy. COPE consisted of four sessions (find employment, spring break, shopping spree/buy a car, and school) with breaks in-between each session for a small group debriefing. During each session, students were asked to complete activities based upon their socioeconomic status. While students in the “wealthy” class got to go to the country club and have private tutoring, students in the “middle class” and “poverty” rushed to find employment.
“I didn’t get a job in the first session but then I went back when we were on spring break and I got a job,” shared Allison Logan ‘17. “I thought I would get a job right away because I was middle class.”
Tucker Bullock '17, who was also in the middle class, had trouble getting a job as well. During the first session, Bullock was sitting down at a table and said, “I feel that if this was in real life, I would be bored because I don’t want to spend my money but all the jobs are going to fill up pretty soon. I’m going to sit here and be patient.”
Cunningham explained that is was harder for “middle class” students to get a job because while they may be more educated than a student in “poverty,” there are more people in the “middle class” overall.
Briana Gavin ‘17, who was in the poverty class, was hired on for a job at a fast-food restaurant.
“I feel like I would be doing this forever and there are not any other opportunities,” Gavin said. “It’s discouraging and makes me not want to do anything else.”
Instead of looking for a job, some students from each class were given the role of being a “connector.”
“The connector roles gives students the script to build that relationship across class lines,” Cunningham revealed.
Wilson added, “One of the things we have the students in the wealthy class do is package up some canned goods for those in poverty. We have them go over to the folks in poverty and tell them ‘here, I thought you might need this,’ and then walk away, so there is no connection. The goal is for the students to pick up on that awkwardness and sense that it doesn’t feeling right. This ushers in the discussion that if we really do want to help out folks in other parts of the community, then what does that need to look like?”
In the second session, most of the “wealthy” students went on the simulated spring break because they had an abundance of finances. However, some “middle class” students also came to spring break, but they were not allowed to be in the same section as the “wealthy.” Despite the divide, the juniors still wanted to have fun together, and were seen tossing a beach ball across the fictional socioeconomic line.
“I think if the wealthy saw the struggles the poverty and middle class have every day it would change their perception on how they live and how they can take advantage of their opportunities and money to help others,” shared Clarence Reed ’17, who was in the wealthy class.
“The things that happened today challenged some of our students’ ideas about what it means to be in each of these social classes,” added religion teacher Karen Emmerich. “I think this opened their eyes about the differences among them but also helped develop their sense of empathy and understanding of how the world works.”
At the end of the simulation, the facilitators gathered all juniors together and asked them to think deeper about the meaning of poverty.
“So often we look at poverty through a material lens, it’s all about the financial resources,” Cunningham told the students. “The fact of the matter is we all have a level of poverty in our life if we are looking at it through a holistic lens. We could be spiritually broken or we could be isolated, so there are lots of ways we could be in poverty.”
Wilson agreed, “When we talk about different resources, some people can be very high and some people can be very low. Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who has a lot of wealth to get into heaven. I think what He was talking about was even if someone has a lot of material wealth, they could be spiritually poor. That’s one of the ways we want kids to change and broaden their definition of poverty.”
Emmerich added that this simulation also tied in with the Pope’s call for a Year of Mercy. “Empathy is so important to be merciful; so that understanding of what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes and not judge choices that you wouldn’t make because you don’t have that empathy. Hopefully the students came away with a sense of empathy to be less judgmental and more merciful.”
You can learn more behind Think Tank’s COPE simulation here.