Teaching About Poverty

The website playspent.org challenges players to make it though the month on $1000 after losing their job. Players must find a new job (the options are waiter, warehouse laborer, or temp) and budget for rent, groceries, gas, and unexpected costs in order to make it until the end of the month with cash in their pocket. And unexpected costs do happen. Such simple occurrences as a car breaking down, a window breaking, a child with the flu, paying for a team uniform, and cut hours at work make living on a budget go from challenging to impossible within a few clicks of a mouse. This game was developed by a charity foundation that helps people struggling to get out of poverty. It shows how through no fault of their own, everyday people can become mired in a hopeless financial situation.


The high school seniors in my Civics/Economics class played this game as part of our unit on poverty in the USA. As the class went through the simulation on school-provided Netbook computers, exclamations such as “I only made it ten days!” and “oh no, my pet is sick!” were heard throughout the classroom. The game uses data in order to create a realistic picture of poverty. For example, when choosing where to rent an apartment the students found that homes close to where they worked were the most expensive. The farthest apartments were the most affordable, but then they had to budget for gas and car repairs. As someone who has studied poverty in America, I found the game to be compelling and hoped it would start a revelatory conversation among my students. However, after the activity I asked what they thought and they replied that it “wasn’t realistic” and that “nobody has that much bad stuff happen to them in one month.” I realized just how little my students know about poverty, even having grown up in the declining city of Rutland.


We tend to grow up with the promise of the “American Dream” instilled in our hearts and minds, believing that if we work hard enough and are smart enough, then we can do anything. Because of this, our society in general has a victim-blaming mentality when it comes to poverty. If the person had only worked harder, been smarter, and been a better American then they would be okay. We treat people in poverty as if it is their own fault. However, when you live in a country in which low-income three year olds have smaller vocabularies than their middle class peers; where low income eighth graders are on average two grade levels behind more affluent students; where low income children have poorer nutrition and less access to enrichment and education activities at home, then the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality of the American Dreamers becomes an impossible fantasy. I realized that I need to devote more class time to this topic. If not to change my students’ minds, then at least to make them think critically about our society and their place in it.

Written by Alison E. Putnam



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