Hands-On Learning for RDC Students

On March 10th, 2016, the Central Alberta Poverty Reduction Alliance and United Way of Central Alberta hosted roughly 100 students from the Red Deer College social work program for a day of experiential learning through participation in a poverty simulation.


The poverty simulation experience is designed to help participants begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family trying to survive from month to month. It is a simulation, not a game. The object is to sensitize participants to the realities faced by low-income people. In the simulation, up to 88 participants assume the roles of up to 26 different families facing poverty. Some families are newly unemployed, some are recently deserted by the “breadwinner,” some are homeless, and others are recipients of government assistance, either with or without additional earned income. Still others are senior citizens receiving Disability or Retirement or grandparents raising their grandchildren. The task of the “families” is to provide for basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.”

Although most of the students participated as people experiencing poverty, some took on roles as “staffers”, in such positions as police officer, utility collector, pawnbroker, grocer, mortgage/rent collector, Quik Cash (payday loan) manager, social service caseworkers, Community Action worker, employer, child care worker, schoolteacher, faith based agency staffer, community health care staff, and bank/loan collector.


After the experience, the students were asked to debrief with this question: “How do you think this experience would impact your practice as a social worker?”

Here are some of the responses:

  • “It really opened my eyes to the struggles low income families face. I think it will make me more aware of my impacts on families as it is sometimes out of their control.  And an outsider may think they are lazy or neglectful to their children but sometimes they are just in a difficult place in life and trying to stay afloat.”
  • (from the Pawn Shop Worker) “I was very aware of my ‘power’ and people’s frustration with me – and in some cases, the desperation (as well as the creativity) that resulted.”
  • “Makes me more understanding and empathetic”
  • (from one of the SW instructors) “Every time I do this sort of poverty simulation, I am reminded of my privilege (even the privilege of feeling angry at the effects of poverty and feeling entitled to try to fight things). Thank you for working with us today. I saw students run, feel stressed, give up, steal, work together, work against each other, work hard to stay calm, etc.”
  • “Helps me to understand what the client feels like with stress and also needed to ask for help and still have dignity.”

Several participants mentioned stress and its impacts. “I was stressed about everything,” said one student. “I could not imagine living this way!”


Poverty is something one can’t really understand without experiencing, and he benefits of this type of learning are many. For more information on the poverty simulation or to book one for your organization, contact Lori Jack, Community Impact Development Officer, Central Alberta United Way, at 403.343.3900 ext. 122 or lori.jack @ caunitedway. ca