Poverty simulation – nothing wrong with it

Poster from SICC website
Poster from SICC website

The reaction of some people online when news first broke that the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) was going to hold a poverty simulation exercise for its members was one of incredulity.

“How could one even simulate poverty?”, some asked. Others were aghast at how the exercise shows the chasm between the rich and poor, so much so that poverty had to be simulated for the well-off to understand.

But let’s hold the horses. Woah!

I think first of all, do we even know what “poverty simulation” is exactly? I suspect those who criticised it within minutes of the news reporting the event were just knee-jerking their reaction on social media.

Ok, so here are some facts about the poverty simulation exercise or – I’d prefer – programme.

First, nope, Singapore is not the first or only country to hold such programmes.

Second, contrary to what some may think, the programme is not to humiliate the poor or ingratiate the rich with some superficial knowledge of poverty.

Third, the programme is in fact a good way to get the better-off to form an emotional connection with the situations faced daily by the poor in feeding their children, being able to afford school fees, transport fares, food, childcare and so on.

These are real matters of daily survival.

The SICC programme will be conducted by the Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) which, as the name suggests, is a Christian-based organisation. Well, there is nothing wrong with it being a religion-based organisation, if anyone is in any doubt. (Why should that matter, anyway?)

MWS has been conducting such programmes with community groups, schools and now, for the first time, with a corporate entity (SICC).

Another group which also does the same programmes is Etch Empathy, as reported by Channel Newsasia recently. (See here.)

“Based on real-life family profiles, the poverty simulation exercise helps participants to be aware of situations and the consequent hard decisions that people living in poverty have to face every day,” a spokesperson for MWS said to the media.

What is the programme about?

Here is what CNA reported:

Most of the exercises involve some form of role-playing. Participants will take on the role of a person with specific constraints.

The person could have a spouse who needs medical attention and young children to take care of. He or she may work in a small company and have loans to pay off. And this will come on top of children’s needs or medical bills. Participants are then brought through how decisions and priorities may have to be made.  

These are just some of the scenarios that poverty simulation exercises such as “In Their Shoes” will throw up. The exercise, run by non-profit organisation Methodist Welfare Services (MWS), requires participants to also complete various activities in their simulated roles.

It could include looking for a job, seeking medical attention or getting children to school. And if the participant “fails”, there will be consequences, like seeing your child fall into bad company.

It seems like a worthwhile thing to do.

And such workshops, as mentioned above, are and have also been held elsewhere, like in the United States, for example.

Go to Youtube and you can find videos of this.

“The experience provides an emotional hook that moves people in a way that simple statistics and teaching can’t do,” said Brandon Everest, one of the facilitators of a similar simulation programme in Traverse City, Michigan.

The programme there was held by the Traverse Bay Poverty Reduction Initiative (PRI), and co-sponsored by Northwestern Michigan College and Michigan State University North.

Another simulation workshop was held in Rochester last year as well.

“To give community leaders and area residents a snapshot of the challenges that some families in poverty face on a daily basis, ACT Rochester hosted a poverty simulation based on real-life scenarios,” the explanation on its Youtube video explains.

And here is a longer video, if you are interested, in how it all works:

“You know, I think the simulation is a good example of something that is different and something that gives people a real feel for what’s going on,” said Ed Doherty, author/researcher.

“I got to be a 12-year old boy, and so I didn’t have all the headaches… but I was a 12-year old boy with two parents who were working… they were working so hard to take care of me that they didn’t have any time to take care of me. And it actually happened in the simulation… and I thought to myself, this is real, this is what goes on.”

While certainly nothing will beat going down to the ground, spend time with the poor and less fortunate, and see for yourself the real-life situations they are in, it does not mean that we should shun any or all other methods of informing ourselves.

And yes, certainly we also hope participants will go on to devote time to volunteer to help the needy. But even if they don’t, the knowledge they gain from such workshops may come in useful if they should come across families or individuals who may need their help. Or at the very least, perhaps they can better empathise with those who suffer poverty.

So, all in all, I think we should not jump to conclusion and ridicule those who are trying to do good in any way they can.

After all, how many of us would even step forward to participate in such a workshop if invited, let alone go down to volunteer on the ground?

And a word for the SICC too, which some see as a haughty club reserved only for the out-of-touch elites.

Well, the SICC has already been doing its part for the less fortunate, if you didn’t know, with events such as its annual May Day Charity which, this year, hopes again to raise funds “to help the young and the elderly, the physically disabled, and the extremely poor.” (See its circular to members here.)

Everyone does what he or she can, and we should encourage them, instead of putting them down.

So, here’s cheering MWS and Etch Empathy for their work with the poor!

Find me on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/andrewlohhp

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