Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Simulating" Poverty: Insightful, or Insulting?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Walking around campus this week, I've seen a lot of signs for the Student Volunteers Council's "Poverty Simulation", a concept which puzzled me, especially since in addition to "experiencing" poverty, participants will also be given free lunch. I'm glad that the SVC is trying to call attention to issues of poverty, especially because of Princeton students' relative isolation from the 35 million Americans who are destitute, but this is most definitely not the right way to go about it. Even if we fast for a day, we will understand hunger - but with the knowledge that the next day, we will be able to eat.

It's insulting to imagine that we can attend an hour-long conference and come away with an idea of the magnitude and horror of poverty in America, especially as it affects women. As we slide into a recession, women are the first to be laid off; single parents are overwhelmingly female, and overwhelmingly likely to be impoverished. As anyone who has read Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent book Nickel and Dimed will understand, living in poverty is exhausting in a way that is incomprehensible to a Princeton student.

"This event will help people understand the complexities and frustrations of living in poverty day-to- day, said Marcia K. MacKillop, assistant director of the Crisis Ministry of Princeton, the group which co-sponsored the simulation. "With a greater awareness of its impact, we can more effectively address the poverty issues in our community."

Greater awareness of its impact? I understand that this activity is well-meaning, but can we really understand, or help, people in poverty, just because we spent a morning trying to imagine what it would be like to be poor? I'd be interested to hear from any of the 100 people who were signed up to attend this activity whether it was enlightening, or useful, because frankly, I'm skeptical.


At November 23, 2008 at 2:10 PM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

>>>"It's insulting to imagine that we can attend an hour-long conference and come away with an idea of the magnitude and horror of poverty."

Would it be less insulting for us to do nothing and be completely and utterly unaware? Isn't some incomplete understanding better than none at all?

At December 5, 2008 at 1:34 PM , Blogger Todra said...

I think you are absolutely right. We can't understand poverty through an experiment in fasting. The thing that makes me sad is that we have to pretend to experience something in order to be impacted enough to DO something. I'd think anyone who has seen desperately poor families, even in photo books, would be so burdened with the NEED to do something that nothing else would be necessary. This experiment sounds like a marketing gimmick to get selfish, rich people to care about the rest of the world.

At February 19, 2009 at 3:39 AM , Anonymous Elizabeth said...

that picture that you have up there is very powerful. do you know who took it?


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