UWRF to Host Poverty Simulation Event

UWRF to Host Poverty Simulation Event
Poverty simulation - 20230118

ABOVE PHOTO: Participants in the Community Action Poverty Simulation event at UW-River Falls in January 2023 discuss challenges related to trying to pay for living expenses on a limited income. This year’s poverty simulation event at the university is scheduled for March 27 and is intended to raise awareness about the growing number of people struggling to pay for basic life expenses. UWRF file photo.

 Even in the St. Croix Valley, a part of Wisconsin where the population is increasing along with economic development, many people struggle to make ends meet financially. 

“Events like this are about raising awareness but also planting the seeds of change and the idea that we can all make a difference,

The number of residents having trouble paying for basic living staples such as housing, food, transportation, and childcare has grown in recent years as costs for many items have outpaced many people’s incomes. In fact, many are unable to afford their bills even while working two or more jobs, said Kathleen Hunzer, director of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Honors Program, Chancellor’s Scholar and Falcon Scholars programs, and who oversees a campus food pantry for students.

“There is a larger population of people out there who are struggling financially than we know,” Hunzer said. “We want to open the community’s eyes to that and get them thinking about poverty in their communities.”

In recognition of financial difficulties many face, UW-River Falls is hosting the Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) event from 5:30-9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27, in the Riverview Ballroom in the University Center, E. 501 Wild Rose Ave., River Falls. The event is free to attend, but space is limited. Registration is required and must be done by clicking on the “Register Here” button at this site.

The event is co-sponsored by the UWRF Student Government Association, the UWRF Honors Program, the UWRF Sustainability Office, Our Neighbor’s Place, United Way of St. Croix Valley, the Pierce County Hunger Prevention Council, and other community partners.

During the CAPS event, participants engage in real-world situations often faced by people lacking enough income. Through a simulation exercise, they are given a limited amount of money meant to represent one month’s earnings and must then cover costs related to their specific situations, such as a single mother having to pay for housing, childcare, transportation, food and other expenses.

CAPS is intended to not only educate attendees about those struggling to earn enough money to cover basic expenses, but to develop a sense of empathy for people living in financial distress, Hunzer said.  

“I want people to empathize with a group that is often overlooked, or is looked down upon in our community,” Hunzer said. “Taking part in this event forces participants to confront the difficult choices that many people face given their limited resources.”

Across Wisconsin, 34% of households struggle to afford necessities such as housing, childcare, health care, food and transportation, according to the 2023 United Way of Wisconsin ALICE Report. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed and represents those earning above federal poverty wages but who are challenged to pay living expenses.

Steve McCarthy, executive director of United Way St. Croix Valley, said many residents in this part of the state, even in more affluent communities such as Hudson, face financial challenges that make paying bills difficult. Those fiscal struggles have worsened in recent years as fast-rising costs of living have in many cases outpaced people’s ability to pay.

In Pierce County, the combined ALICE and poverty population in 2023 was 37%; that figure totaled 28% in St. Croix County; 33% in Polk County; and 37% in Burnett County, regions overseen by United Way St. Croix Valley.

“You even have professionals, people like teachers, who can’t afford to live in some communities and must move further out and travel to their jobs,” McCarthy said, noting housing is an especially large cost for many. “The number of people struggling continues to climb and people are left to make some very difficult choices.”

While curbing the trend of rising ALICE numbers seems daunting, efforts must be made to enact better public policy to do so, McCarthy said. He hopes events like CAPS raise public awareness and prompt people to demand change. 

“What we’re seeing is a continuation of a long-term trend of wage inequality,” he said. “I hope this event opens people’s eyes to understand that this level of struggle for so many people is not normal, and we should not accept it but should instead try to do better.”

While some may view the CAPS exercise as a well-intended game, it carries a much greater meaning, Hunzer said. The event represents the very real challenging situations that many people in this community face. 

“Part of what we are trying to do with this is to shift the perspective from blaming people for being in poverty to understanding the reasons people find themselves not having enough money and the challenges they face,” Hunzer said. 

In addition to raising awareness about and empathy for people experiencing financial difficulties, Hunzer said she hopes the CAPS event transforms perspectives about poverty and helps inspire action to reduce ALICE numbers.

“Events like this are about raising awareness but also planting the seeds of change and the idea that we can all make a difference,” Hunzer said. 

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