Two years ago, CJ teacher, Mick Mominee, and Director of Ministry and Service, Kelli Kinnear, were inspired to think outside the box and started an important tradition at CJ. Mominee and Kinnear attended a Think Tank C.O.P.E. event at Sinclair Community College. C.O.P.E. stands for Cost Of Poverty Experience, and an experience it certainly was.
The simulation places participants into family groups where they are each given a specific role and task to achieve. Every group has different assets, such as a car, and different burdens, such as low wage jobs.
“You had to make ends meet for a month,” said Mominee. “You’re given some money, some people are given cars or bus passes, and you have a list of goals and things to accomplish like going to work, paying bills, and getting groceries.”
In a matter of a few hours, the participants simulate what it would be like to live in poverty for a month.
“We got a chance to experience it and decided we’d love to bring it back to our kids as part of our social justice course,” said Mominee. “You’re living real life poverty for the month and the stress is very real.”
The first year of C.O.P.E. at CJ was a massive success; students came away from the experience with empathy and understanding for families who live in poverty. Perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of the simulation is its ability to break down negative stereotypes about people in poverty.
“There are a lot of stereotypes out there like 'poor people are lazy' and 'why don't they just get a job?' said Mominee. “The simulation gives you a better idea of the struggles people go through. It’s not as simple as 'work hard' and the simulation makes students realize this because they couldn’t make ends met no matter how hard they tried. I think a lot of people assume everyone gets a fair shot and it’s just not true. There are certain barriers in place in our system. If you don’t get a chance to go to college or if you make mistakes and you don’t have a family who supports you, or you were born into poverty…it’s hard to succeed.”
Matt Allaire '16 experienced some of these boundaries during the simulation.
“I was in jail three times for things I didn’t do,” Allaire said. “I missed my probation meeting because I was in jail, so I was sent to jail for missing it. It was really frustrating.”
Simulations like this help students realize how many people struggle in poverty due to situations outside of their own control.
“I’m sure this kind of thing happens and I can see how that could be a very real circumstance for someone,” said Allaire.
The core of the simulation is based on information gathered from real Miami Valley families living in poverty. The creators of C.O.P.E. interviewed families and asked them about their biggest struggles. This information was used to make the simulation as realistic as possible.
According to Mominee, the realistic detail included in the simulation is what makes it most affective. Students are asked to think about every aspect of life in an amazing amount of detail, giving them a realistic understanding of the trials caused by poverty. “I’ve been teaching social justice for 15 years and this is the most realistic simulation I’ve ever done. You can read books and articles, but this gives it a human face,” said Mominee.
Karen Emmerich, a fellow social justice teacher at CJ agrees that the simulation is more impactful than simply reading about poverty.
“The frustration and the emotional experience in doing this is something you can’t get from a movie or a book,” Emmerich said. “There is empathy for people in poverty that is drawn out of the students during this exercise.”
“Think of how empathetic everyone would be if they had to go through this experience,” added Mominee. “It makes you realize there are people who work very hard and still can’t get ahead."
The simulation also calls attention to the desperation that poverty can cause. Many students resorted to stealing money or food in order to make ends meet.
“The main thing that stuck out to me was how many people were stealing,” Allaire said about the simulation. “People you would never expect to see doing that were involved in organized crime groups.”
“We asked the students, ‘would you ever do this in real life?’ And they said ‘well no’ but they did it here,” Mominee said.“They’ll say it’s because they needed the money to provide for their family. Kids definitely compromise their morals for the sake of the simulation.”
While these moral compromises may seem concerning, they provide a valuable lesson about the true desperation poverty causes. Most students who resorted to criminal activity felt emotionally distraught and from that emotional experience, many students develop a new sense of understanding and empathy. These issues are addressed in a large group discussion after the simulation that allows the participants to process their emotions and reactions.
“It puts that kind of illegal behavior in context and gives them empathy for people who do break the law,” said Mominee. “Not that it’s OK to commit a crime, but that they now understand why people are put in that position.”
The group discussion also addresses larger societal issues.
“What does it say about our country that there are people who are put in the position of having to break the law just to survive?” said Mominee.“In some places, there are people who want to work and obey the law, but there are just no jobs left.”
Matt Allaire came to a similar conclusion.
“I realized how real the hypocrisy of the system is and how many resources go unused,” Allaire said.
Ultimately, this year’s C.O.P.E. event was another great success. Students walked away with a sense of the real struggles people in poverty encounter on a daily basis and a greater understanding to view all the members of their community with more empathy and compassion.