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Exploring the State of Poverty: A Classroom Experience - Diane K. Klemme, Judy I. Rommel


Vol. 14, No. 2

ISSN: 1546-2676

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 14, No. 2.
ISSN:
15
46-2676

Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer.

Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2004.

Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, 1749 Hamilton Road, Suite 106, Okemos, MI 48864. Telephone: 517.351.8335

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Exploring the State of Poverty: A Classroom Experience

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Diane K. Klemme, Judy I. Rommel

Abstract

The ROWEL poverty simulation was implemented as course content in two undergraduate courses at University of Wisconsin-Stout during summer session 2003. Students majoring in Family and Consumer Sciences and Education and Human Development and Family Studies were able to simulate life in a single parent family. A pre-post attitudes questionnaire and reflection papers were used to evaluate the value of the experience.

Introduction

The complex issues of poverty continue to be a significant source of concern in the United States. Long-term trends indicate more and more children and families are living in poverty. In 2001, 11.7 percent of Americans were poor compared with the 11.1 percent rate in the 1970s (Census Bureau, 2002, 1996). We have made little progress in alleviating the stresses and issues of poverty for millions of families.

Public attitudes toward the poor have shifted since the War on Poverty when President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Initiative expanded government programs to aid the poor and disadvantaged. In the 1960s, America was experiencing a boom in economic growth, government revenues grew faster than expected, the unemployment and inflation rates were relatively low, and real family mean income had more than doubled between 1947 and 1973 (O’Hare, 1996). People have a more benevolent attitude when they see their own social-economic status improving.

The expectation of the children growing up in the 1960s was that their financial situation would improve over time; however real family mean income in 1994 was only 2% higher than in 1973; even though large numbers of women were entering the labor force to supplement paternal incomes (O’Hare, 1996). Results from a 1995 opinion poll found 45% of Americans anticipated their children would have a lower standard of living than themselves and less than one third of teenagers thought they would have a better standard of living than their parents (Gugilotta, 1996). Stagnant personal incomes, growing government debt, economic pessimism, and a shrinking middle class that questioned tax money going to the poor contributed to a lack of support of government programs for the poor. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 ended the guarantee of federal support to those in need, placed time limits on assistance, and further reduced support for the poor.

This shift in public perspective and subsequent policy response is based in part on misperceptions about the poor. Common images of the poverty population suggest that they are people of color, housed in inner city neighborhoods, unemployed, and living off the government.

In reality, the poverty population is diverse and includes inner city ghetto residents, American Indians living on reservations, rural poor families in Appalachia, African Americans in the South, teenage mothers, elderly widows, and displaced workers. Over one-fifth of the children in the U.S. are classified as poor. Forty-eight percent of the poor of working age work some hours and millions work full-time (O’Hare, 1996).

These myths suggest that the general public has misperceptions about individuals who live in poverty as well as a misunderstanding of the issues of poverty. Results of focus groups conducted with Cooperative Extension and human service agency staff showed that many professionals didn’t understand the issues because they didn’t have a frame of reference (Shirer, Klemme, Broshar, and Miller, 1998).

The ROWEL Experience

Such findings suggest that in addition to cognitive knowledge-based curricula, professionals (teachers, human service workers) may need affective-based curricula such as transformative learning. Transformative learning theory (Mezirow, 1991) at its core is simple. Learners, through some activating event, come to critically examine their views, open themselves to alternatives, and consequently change the way they view events. Cranton (2000) suggests that this transformative learning is recursive: individuals must first think about change and see the purpose for change before change occurs.

Mezirow’s earlier work (Cranton, 2002) identified steps in the process of transformative learning—beginning with a dilemma and ending with some conclusion. These seven steps serve as a rough guide in setting up a learning environment to promote transformative learning. The steps include:

  • An activating event that challenges a person’s assumptions about what has been experienced, heard or read
  • Recognition of assumptions held
  • Critical self-reflection
  • Openness to alternative viewpoints
  • Engagement in discourse
  • Revision of assumptions
  • Action on revision

The activating event selected for this experience was curricula that could provide opportunities and experiences that help individuals develop sensitivity and empathy for individuals living in poverty. The Reform Organization of Welfare (ROWEL) Education Association of Missouri developed a poverty simulation to promote transformative learning about the poor. The copyrighted learning tool is designed to increase public awareness about issues related to poverty by engaging 30-70 participants who assume the roles of family members living in poverty. Participants become members in families of various structure, i.e. elderly couples, single parents, and nuclear two-parent families. Each “family” receives a packet of information that outlines the family’s resources and needs. The task of each family is to provide basic needs for one month. Each week is represented by a 15-minute time period. Families spend each 15-minute period paying rent, buying food, and interacting with other community resources.

The simulation is conducted in a large room with families seated in households composed of chair groupings. Volunteers who represent community resources (a bank, employment office, grocery store, pawn broker, food bank, etc.) are seated at tables placed around the perimeter. Other volunteers (a police officer, utility collector, landlord, illegal activities person) also interact with the families.

After the one-hour exercise, volunteers shared real-life experiences of living in poverty and participants discussed their experiences in small groups and shared conclusions with the large group. The entire simulation takes about three hours.

The post-discussion experience incorporates all but one of the steps of the transformative learning process. Participants engage in discourse that provides them an opportunity to discuss and recognize assumptions held and engage in critical self-reflection. Volunteers share their real life experiences to nurture openness to alternative viewpoints and provide a different perspective on poverty. Finally, the large group discussion aids participants in revision of assumptions. Action on revision is not included in the experience but opportunities for this step will be discussed in the results section of this article.

The Classroom Experience

Bringing the ROWEL experience to students at the University of Wisconsin-Stout was a combined effort of the county Emergency Food and Shelter Coalition, two undergraduate programs at University of Wisconsin-Stout (Family and Consumer Sciences Education and Human Development and Family Studies), and the Stoutreach leadership program. The program was facilitated by the County’s University Extension office. Students in two summer school courses (Family Resource Management and Working with Families in Poverty) participated in the activity. Both courses were week-long classes and students participated in the simulation during regular class hours (9 am to Noon). Fifty students and 17 community residents representing community agencies participated.

Data Collection

Data on the simulation experience was collected in three ways. A pre/post-questionnaire (Figure 1) was given to students.  Those in the Working with Families in Poverty course completed the pre-questionnaire at the beginning of the first day of class to negate the effect of course subject matter on their attitudes about poverty. The post-questionnaire was administered at the close of the simulation. Students in Family Resource Management course completed the pre-questionnaire the day before the simulation and the post-questionnaire the following morning. Students in the Working with Families in Poverty course wrote reflection papers about the experience. Community participants completed an evaluation of the process following close of the simulation.

Results

The results of the experience will be reported as they relate to some of Mezirow’s seven steps of setting up a transformative learning experience. Data from the pre/post-questionnaire and comments from the students’ reflection papers will be included. This section will includerecognition of assumptions held and critical self-reflection, openness to alternative viewpoints, and revision of assumptions. A brief discussion regarding the final step, action of revision will be included.

Recognition of Assumptions Held and Critical Self Reflection.Participants articulated assumptions and also provided critical self-reflections on both their understanding of what it might be like to live on a limited income and their level of sensitivity to people living on low incomes. Although the empirical findings related to change in these two areas were not statistically significant, the anecdotal student comments suggested significant change. One participant had these comments regarding understanding of being a parent living in poverty:

I experienced in a small degree what must happen in their lives that leaves them feeling so frustrated that they lash out in desperation, not that I even came close through this simulation to feeling how they truly feel and experiencing what families in poverty actually go through. Through this experience I can only begin to understand the impact poverty has on people and how in turn people may react. (Anonymous, 2003)

Openness to Alternatives. Participants also changed their attitudes about people who take advantage of the poor. A participant who played the role of a single mother with two preschool children wrote:

I hated waiting so long in lines all of the time; workers were rude and my landlord was a cheat. I was evicted from my home because I failed to ask for a receipt for my payment on rent. My landlord went on to say that I didn’t pay and I didn’t have any proof. I can see that this would happen; especially to people in poverty because they get greatly taken advantage of in situations because workers and the community feel as though they deserve it. (Anonymous, 2003)

Revision of Assumptions. Table 1 reflects the change in attitude about barriers faced by low-income families. The questionnaire included 11 barrier statements and as indicated by the table, there was a statistically significant change in attitudes for eight items including transportation, isolation, time, rules, self-esteem, taking advantage of the poor, jobs, and illegal activities. Three items: childcare, health, and housing did not reflect statistically significant changes in attitudes.

Time, a scarce resource for many families, was one area where students’ attitudes were most changed by the experience. One participant wrote: “Though nothing extreme happened to our family during the weeks, the small worries just kept building up. Time was a huge issue. There was never enough time to get everything done” (Anonymous, 2003).Another student commented, “I felt bad for my children because they didn’t have much free time because I was always running around trying to get things done” (Anonymous, 2003).

The most significant attitude shift related to understanding rules and completing forms. A student wrote, “I was more than overwhelmed when I had to fill out a twenty-page document to apply for housing assistance. There were phrases in that document that I couldn’t understand and I consider myself to be highly literate” (Anonymous, 2003). Another student stated, “While standing in line to cash my check I realized I was at the wrong place—Should I continue?” (Anonymous, 2003).

Action on Revision. One of the limitations of a classroom experience is the inability to actually see how participants respond “in the real world.” Often times, such activities do not occur within the time frame or place where we work with students. Activities that could help student act on their revised assumptions include field trips, site visits, logs and journal responses, a follow-up meeting, or a student’s own plan of action.

Conclusions

The ROWEL simulation was a transformative learning experience for the participants. Students in the two summer school classes were so positive about this experience and its relationship to Family and Consumer Sciences Education and Human Development and Family Studies helping careers that we will be offering students the opportunity to participate in the ROWEL simulation each semester. Students in the Family Resource Management course will participate as part of course requirements and other students across campus will be invited to participate.  If you are interested in bringing the ROWEL simulation to your campus, contact Elaine West at the Missouri Association of Community Action.

Our experience with the simulation supports previous evaluations (Shirer, et al., 1998) and expands the benefits to undergraduate students who will be working with individuals and family living in poverty. One final participant comment seems to sum up the benefits.

This simulation has been one of the most influential learning experiences I have ever had. Although this simulation has only given me a glimpse of what it must be like to live in poverty, the information I gained from it will help me deal with families in the future. I would recommend this experience to anyone, whether they plan to work in a helping field or not. I am very happy that I threw myself into the role of Opal Olson and I feel very privileged to have been able to take part in this simulation. (Anonymous, 2003).

References

Anonymous. (2003). Student reflection papers. University of Wisconsin-Stout: Menomonie, WI.

Cranton, P. (2000). “Individuation and authenticity in transformative learning.” Paper presented at the Third International Conference on Transformative Learning, New York, N.Y. Oct. 2000.

Cranton, P. (2002). Teaching for transformation. New Directions of Adult and Continuing Education, 93, 63-71.

Gugilotta, G. (1996, June 19). Scaling down the American dream. The Washington Post, p A21.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

O’Hare, W. (1996). A new look at poverty in America. Population Bulletin (51), 2, 2-48.

Shirer, K., Klemme, D., Broshar, D, & Miller, L. (1998). Exploring the state of poverty: Iowa’s experience with the ROWEL poverty simulation. EDC-135. Iowa State University Extension, Ames, IA.

U.S. Census Bureau (2002). Current Population Reports. P60-219.U.S Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.

U.S. Census Bureau (1996). Population Bulletin. 51(2) U.S Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.

Pre/Post Questionnaire – The ROWEL Experience

Directions: Please circle and respond with answers that come closest to your thoughts and actions.


1. I understand what it might be like to live on a limited income.

1

2

3

4

5

strongly agree

agree

undecided

mildly disagree

disagree

2. I am sensitive to people living on low incomes.

1

2

3

4

5

strongly agree

agree

undecided

mildly disagree

disagree

3. How would you rate the following items as barriers faced by low-incomes families.

significant problem

mild problem

undecided

not much of a problem

not a problem at all

a. lack of transportation

1

2

3

4

5

b. isolation and lack of support from extended families & friends

1

2

3

4

5

c. not having enough time

1

2

3

4

5

d. difficulty understanding rules and completing forms

1

2

3

4

5

e. lack of child care

1

2

3

4

5

f. health problems

1

2

3

4

5

g. lack of confidence or self-esteem

1

2

3

4

5

h. lack of affordable housing

1

2

3

4

5

i. people who take advantage of the poor

1

2

3

4

5

j. lack of jobs

1

2

3

4

5

k. lure of illegal activities

1

2

3

4

5

4. What do you think are some ways your community can help meet the needs of limited resource families?

5. I would recommend the poverty simulation to others.

YES

NO

6. Any additional comments:



Table 1 - Barriers Faced by Low-Income Families Participant Pre/Post Attitudes Mean Comparison

Barrier

Pre Mean
Post Mean
t and Sig (2-tail)

Lack of transportation

1.4773

1.2045

2.741**

Isolation and lack of support

2.0682

1.5227

3.091**

Time

2.5116

1.3023

5.444***

Understanding rules and completing forms

2.4091

1.3636

6.437***

Lack of child care

1.5000

1.2273

2.013I

Health problems

1.7045

1.5000

1.324

Lack of confidence or self-esteem

1.7442

1.3953

2.351*

Affordable housing

1.5909

1.3182

1.666

People who take advantage of the poor

2.2273

1.3864

5.400***

Lack of jobs

1.9545

1.3409

3.094**

Lure of illegal activities

2.4318

1.5909

3.521***

Mean Scale: 1=Strong agree item is a barrier, 2=Agree item is a barrier, 3=Undecided if item is a barrier, 4=Mildly disagree item is a barrier, 5=Strongly disagree item is a barrier.

Significance: *p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

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