UNLV nursing student Alexandra Talley, left, participates in a poverty simulation in January 2022. The experience is designed to teach empathy and understanding of the barriers faced by low-income families. (Photo by April Corbin Girnus)
It’s the first of the month. The rent is due. Iris Isaacson,19, and Isaiah Isma, 25, already know there won’t be enough money to cover that plus utilities, food and his outstanding title loan, so they’re discussing their strategy. He needs to clock in at his minimum wage job, but does he have time to hit up the pawn shop first? She, with their 1-year-old Ian in tow, plans to head to social services and then pay utilities with the little money they have in the bank.
Iris, Isaiah and Ian aren’t real, but they might as well be. They are characters, ones of dozens created by the Missouri Community Action Network for a poverty simulation using data and known experiences of people living below, at and even above the federal poverty line. UNLV’s School of Nursing has been hosting the simulation for a decade. In the last three years, the dental and medical schools have also begun participating.
Today, the Isaacson/Isma family are played by nursing student Alexandra Talley and dental student Andy Landaverde, who’ve just been reminded by an event facilitator that this is a simulation, “not a game.” The one-hour event will represent one month, with four 15-minute intervals representing weeks, and a series of tables around the gym acting as the businesses, government entities and nonprofits they can interact with.
Landaverde as Isaiah heads to the pawn shop to trade in some of their possessions. He tries to barter to get more for his things but the shop owner stays firm. A woman after him tries too but with greater success — seems there’s more sympathy for a grandmother who is taking care of grandkids while her daughter is incarcerated.
Meanwhile, Talley as Iris is filling out a form with social services to make sure she keeps her $150 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and her $278 per month in cash from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. There are only two caseworkers, so Iris has to wait a few minutes, which in this world is days, but eventually she gets her benefits card and is told she must return in a month with proof she’s looking for work.
“You’d better figure out childcare,” remarks the caseworker, gesturing to the silent baby doll cradled in her arms
The real-life Department of Welfare and Social Services, which administers SNAP and TANF, says on its website that most eligible Nevadans can expect to receive their first SNAP benefits within 30 days. “If you have very little income or no income, you may qualify for SNAP benefits within seven days,” the site adds.
By the time Iris has settled that, Isaiah is done with work and waiting in the bank line to cash his check. Across the gym a buzzer goes off. The first week is already over, and they weren’t able to accomplish anything near what they’d planned. It’s a common refrain for other family groups.
“Oh my god,” Iris remarks to Isaiah as they settle into the folding chairs that represent their trailer home. “We’re gonna die.”
The couple’s second week starts with a warning from their rental company: Pay up in three days or be evicted. The couple isn’t too worried. They’ll have enough for rent once they cash Isaiah’s paycheck.
Iris starts the week off at the childcare facility, which tells her she’s lucky because there’s no wait list for subsidized care right now. It’ll still be $80 per week, which Iris doesn’t have on hand. The childcare worker suggests seeking a Head Start voucher at the community non-profit group.
There, Iris catches another lucky break — she finds out they also offer utility assistance, so she signs up for help with their gas bill.
Isaiah isn’t as lucky. After he does the required time at work, he finds that the bank is unexpectedly closed, so he still can’t cash his paychecks. He could try the nearby payday loan company, which is open, but Isaiah doesn’t seem to consider it. It’s perhaps a smart choice, as interest rates for short-term payday loans in Nevada can be upwards of 600%.
The gym buzzer rings. Another 15 minutes, or week, has passed.
The mortgage and rent company brass is making his way around the gym, evicting people. He tells each family he’s sorry but they’re a business and can’t make exceptions. He gets to the Isaacson trailer. Isaiah shows him the check he hasn’t been able to cash but the matter is settled. The couple and their baby have been evicted, as have half a dozen other families in the simulation.
Another man comes up to the couple. He is here to repossess Isaiah’s car, which in this world means giving up all of his “transportation passes,” which are required to get almost anywhere. Isaiah and Iris acknowledge to each other they’d forgotten about the title loan because they were prioritizing rent and utilities.
“We haven’t paid anything,” says Talley as a simple matter of fact.
“We were about to, though,” says Landaverde.
Food and facts
Isaiah hightails it to the bank to try and beat the rush. Once his checks are cashed, he hands the money off to Iris who will pay bills while he’s at work.
Overhead, a facilitator of the simulation reminds parents it’s spring break week and any child under age 8 requires supervision. A few teens begin wandering around asking parents if they need a babysitter. They promise good rates and say they need the extra money to help their families.
Iris pays the past due rent and eviction fee. But now there’s a new notice on their home. It’s bright red and says the family has been ignoring their dietary needs and must fix that immediately.
Iris heads to the supermarket line, which is now by far the longest line in the gym. Seems almost all the families failed to buy food and now they’re all hitting the grocery up at once.
“That’s something you can do in a simulation,” Minnie Wood, the facilitator, will tell them later, during the debrief. “But can’t do in real life.”
Nevada is one of many states that staggers delivery of SNAP benefits over a 10-day period. The schedule is designed so grocery stores aren’t inundated with customers in the first few days of the month and community food banks aren’t flooded with customers at the end of the month when families run out of their store-bought food.
The average monthly caseload for SNAP in Nevada was 239,712 in 2021, according to state data.
In line, Iris stands in front of a 13-year-old who is watching her 3-year-old sibling while their caregivers work. Across the gym, a blonde sits in the designated jail — maybe a teen who’s gotten into trouble over spring break, maybe a young kid whose parents tried their luck and left them unattended to go to work.
The UNLV students who were randomly assigned children characters will tell the group later in the debrief that they felt useless as they were confined to the corner of the gym designated as the school. They wanted to help their families but largely couldn’t. A few would drop out when able and get jobs. Their parents would admit being grateful for the help.
In the faux schoolroom, the students pass their time answering multiple choice questions about poverty. One of the questions asks what the federal minimum wage is. Less than a quarter of the group raises their hands for the correct answer.
It’s $7.25 per hour — a rate that has remained unchanged since 2009.
Another question touches on which age group is statistically most likely to be in poverty.
It’s children. Nearly one in six children under six were poor in 2019 and almost half of them lived in extreme poverty, according to the 2021 State of America’s Children report from the Children’s Defense Fund. Children of color are disproportionately impacted. More than one in four Black children and one in five Hispanic children are poor.
Still in the supermarket line, the woman in front of Iris turns around to make small talk.
“Cute baby,” she offers.
“Thanks,” responds Talley as Iris. “Do you want him? He’s heavy.”
The home stretch
Iris drops the baby off at daycare and heads to the “General Employer” table to seek work to satisfy the work search requirement. She hoped to start work right away but instead she’s given an application and told to come back next week.
It turns out to be for the best because halfway through the week the daycare comes looking for her with an urgent message: “You have to pick him up; he’s sick.”
“Of course he is.”
Beyond the expected challenges of rent, utilities and childcare, the simulation is designed with “wildcards” that represent the unexpected challenges. For Isaiah and Iris it will be this. Other families are held up at gunpoint or find themselves in the criminal justice system.
“It’s meant to be frustrating,” explains Wood, the facilitator.
Iris and baby Ian head to their trailer. Around them, five homes are still evicted.
Isaiah swings by between work and the bank. Iris says she’s “just standing here doing nothing” because she can’t do anything with the sick baby.
Isaiah half-heartedly suggests going to the healthcare table but Iris dismisses it with a quick “nah.” After he leaves, she adds, to one in particular, “I never did.”
Not one person during the simulation will visit the healthcare table, despite many of the characters having medical conditions and requirements assigned to them. Wood, who has been facilitating the simulation for years, says this is common.
“Nobody ever comes,” she says. “Maybe occasionally you see an elderly single adult make it but nobody else makes it.”
That’s one of the takeaways the program is designed to instill in these future healthcare professionals. When you are living paycheck to paycheck, it’s remarkably easy not to prioritize routine or even important but not urgent medical needs.
Empathy is needed and barriers taken seriously. For example, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FAHC) that provide primary care services in underserved areas are required to have some hours outside of the traditional business day.
After he’s finished work, Isaiah checks in with Iris to see where they’re at. The bills were all paid, eventually. They’ve lost the car but they still have a roof over their head.
“We’re almost done,” he says, referring to the simulation.
There’s relief in his voice.
Real life for many
Talley and Landaverde take off their Iris and Isaiah name tags and place them in a plastic bag with the rest of the simulation props and prompts. While they may be able to walk away from these struggles, many people never can. That’s one of the things the simulation is designed to teach.
“One person can’t change everything,” Wood tells the students. “This is structural.”
As they debrief in small groups, one pair of students assigned to play a homeless couple comment that their experience seemed easier than others because they didn’t have to worry about rent and utilities and instead were working on getting into housing. They.say they’d have liked to do another “month” in the simulation to see whether they could have weathered that transition.
Everyone agrees dealing with the “transportation passes” was frustrating. One group bought them in bulk at the start of the month. Most didn’t have enough upfront and constantly had to go back to purchase more of them.
The Isaacson/Isma family prompt proves doable. The couple ended the month with $458 left on hand. That leaves them better off than many.
Every year the Federal Reserve surveys households and asks whether they would have difficulty paying for an unexpected $400 expense. In 2020, 36% of households said they would have difficulty; 12% said they wouldn’t be able to.
Iris and Isaiah could have, for that month anyway.
Others characters within the simulation will likely never be cash flush at the end.
“Sometimes there is simply not enough for families,” says Wood.
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