What would you do if you had to choose between feeding your family and paying the rent? As I learned a few years ago during one of the poverty simulations my company regularly holds, whether to eat or stay warm is a common dilemma for those whose lives hover around the poverty line, and even more common now with millions of Americans unemployed due to the pandemic.
The poverty simulation is an experiential learning program, designed to help participants be more sensitive to the plight of low-income families and the challenges they face daily. During the four-hour exercise, participants step into the real-life situations of underserved populations and make critical decisions to survive a month with limited resources.
Participants are divided into families with extremely limited cash and time to complete a list of tasks, such as being at work on time; waiting in endless lines either to register for Medicaid benefits or to get funds at a check-cashing company because there are not any banks in the neighborhood; or coping with the harsh realities of unstable housing or unsafe communities.
Each task poses daunting challenges. The simulation ends with a discussion about the barriers that impacted everyone’s “simulated” lives as they tried to make ends meet. As those discussions turn to the real lives of our members, and the fact that they confront these challenges constantly, not just for a few hours, the heart-breaking feeling of the participants is quite real.
AmeriHealth Caritas hosts these simulations as part of our commitment to culturally competent care. They enable us to walk in the shoes of our members—for a brief moment—so that when we talk about “meeting our members where they are,” we have more insight into what they go through every day: why they might miss a doctor’s appointment or stop filling a prescription, why their kids struggle in school, why they’re feeling anxious or depressed, why they often lose hope.
We are better equipped to serve our members when we can ask the right questions and listen to their answers without preconceived ideas—when we have a degree of empathy. That’s key to cultural competency, but also to being culturally responsive. That means we put our members’ needs first, and that requires a contextual understanding of the social, economic and racial disparities that create barriers to their well-being.
The poverty simulations make a profound impact on the participants. I’ve always been proud of our company’s associates and the dedication and compassion they show our members. But I’ve seen their commitment grow further as they learn more about the complexities of poverty and how it can trap someone in a cycle of despair, which is impossible to escape without a helping hand. Our associates become better advocates for our members and are able to fight the myths and punitive thinking that is so prevalent toward Medicaid.
I have traveled to some of the most economically challenged ZIP codes in our nation. I have met our members and heard their stories about how they ended up in difficult circumstances. Whether moms with kids, people living with disabilities, or seniors struggling alone, no one chose to be dependent on Medicaid. They talk about how desperately they want the economic freedom to care for themselves and their families, to see their kids prosper, to have options so they can reach their own American Dream.
Our nation would benefit from greater empathy for others, and also by prioritizing support for programs like Medicaid. The faces of Medicaid are the faces of America.
The Community Action Poverty Simulation is a proprietary program developed by the Missouri Community Action Network.