Students spend day learning about living in poverty. Are they also learning about depending on government?

Retired Decatur High School social studies teacher Chris Billingsley shared this essay with me about a daylong program being held today at the high school to help freshmen understand poverty.

To his credit, Billingsley had doubts about the program so he participated in a demonstration last week.

As you will see, he still has doubts.

(I have sent a note to DHS suggesting it ask students to read this essay later and share their reactions to the program with us.)

Two years ago, I published Billingsley’s commencement address to Decatur High. I would love to share the link, but the Get Schooled archives aren’t accessible any more — even to me. Here is a link to a piece that repeats part of the speech. 

By Chris Billingsley

ghetto

A retired teacher says this board game was used to help students understand poverty. Today, students at his old high school are doing a far deeper dive into what it is like to be poor in America.

During my 35 year career at Decatur High School I was able to save a few classroom relics from the 60s. One of these was a simulation game called “Ghetto.”

The purpose was to encourage student empathy for the poor by playing a board game that would “…sensitize its players to the emotional, physical and social world the poor inhabit.”  The game was in perfect condition, almost as if it had never been used in the classroom. Maybe the rules were too complex or students found some of the descriptions of the poor too demeaning.

Whatever the reasons, the game is a good example of how teachers back in the day tried to educate students concerning poverty in America.

Now it seems that “Ghetto” has found new life at Decatur High School.

Leaders of the Decatur High International Baccalaureate program and their partners at the Decatur Education Foundation hope to have more success with a new simulation, “The Price of Poverty.”

Today’s event will take place during the school day, and all ninth grade students will be required to participate. In addition to watching a documentary about income inequality and helping to assemble food packets, students will participate in what is described as “an intensive poverty simulation.”

I first learned of this from a Facebook friend.  When I responded this activity seemed political (more about inequality rather than real solutions to help the poor) and therefore inappropriate for the entire ninth grade, I was encouraged to participate in the actual simulation, which I did last Thursday at a local Decatur church.

I can’t say I went into the evening with an open mind but hoped to find some positive aspects of the simulation that would meet with my approval.  The evening started well. Seeing several people I knew and listening to background music from Dylan, Marvin Gaye and Tracy Chapman made me feel comfortable.

I joined two others to represent the Boling family made up of an unemployed father, a mother who earned $9 an hour at a local hospital, a 16-year-old daughter who was seven months pregnant and two elementary school-age children.

While reading about the rules, an Emory University professor told us, “This is not a game…” and that we should take our roles seriously.  The stated goal was to survive a month in poverty, trying to juggle paying all the bills while navigating the seemingly Byzantine world of social services.  My partners in poverty and I developed a plan and believed we were ready for the challenge. Or so we thought!

What we were not prepared for was that the entire simulation was designed to frustrate any effort to escape poverty. The employment officer never had any jobs; so much so that participants stopped waiting in her line and instead went to services where we could get housing, food and transportation vouchers, all of which were free.

Anything of value left in our seats while we were off trying to gain benefits was subject to be stolen by roving criminals (all part of the simulation). We later found out that some of the service providers, the banker, pawn shop owner and big box department store, were trying to cheat us in any way possible.

Now I must admit after the first “week” I decided since I would never get a job, I would do anything, lie, cheat, and even steal to help my family survive. When asked by the service providers for my transportation ticket (you had to present a transportation ticket to each provider), I would say, “I had it a minute ago” or “Someone stole it” and “Look Buddy, I’m desperate…” even though I had one or two valuable tickets.

When my wife gave me $610 to pay the mortgage, I convinced the banker I paid the entire amount even though I had only given her $510 (FYI: The banker was played by a senior at DHS, one of my favorite students during my last year as a teacher). My partner in crime was my 16-year-old pregnant daughter who quickly learned if her dad was doing it, it must be OK.

By the end of the month, we had paid most of our bills and still owned the house.

So what might ninth grade students learn from the simulation?  I can’t say but the activity is designed in such a way that some students will think the poor are criminals, willing to do anything to survive.

Others may learn the poor are so helpless that only more government programs and services, such as raising the minimum wage and streamlining the benefit process, can help.

But the most dangerous lesson may be the entire system, including private enterprise and capitalism, is corrupt and that the only solution is more government control.

There may be some positive aspects to the program. The entire ninth grade cohort will participate and some will say that this effort will build esprit de corps. The program also includes a service project where students will put together thousands of food packets for families in Third-World countries.

But for me, this is more of a “servitude” project. It is part of the school day and students essentially are forced to do this. And if any esprit de corps is developed, it’s damaged by the unintended consequences of the simulation, which reinforces stereotypes of the poor and a greater emphasis on liberal political solutions.

Much has been written lately concerning the harm caused by Common Core Standards and changes in the Advanced Placement curriculum. For me, the real danger is not the standards at the top but how these ideas, including International Baccalaureate, influence the day-to-day activities at school.

Conservative parents may wonder why their children come home from school filled with ideas contrary to their beliefs. It may be because there is so little respect for traditional values in public education.

May I suggest educational leaders be more careful in placing so much emphasis on empathy and instead promote respect for those with views different from the majority and even more so for the traditions and values that have made America great.

 

Reader Comments 0

43 comments
justpeachy12
justpeachy12

Once again, DHS has totally missed the mark with its implementation of the IB program. Reminds me of when they got rid of the homecoming floats and replaced them with kinetic puppets thinking that would be "more IB." These folks need to attend some serious training so that they can truly offer an IB program with fidelity instead of with their own misguided agenda. This "game" is a travesty on many levels.



Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Perhaps they should invent a game where you complain, as a middle class white person in Cobb or other NW Ga county, about "those people" in New Orleans who lived in a place below sea level, and then "got what you'd expect" with Katrina and then got those government hand outs,  who then find THEIR homes flooded (homes they built next to creeks and rivers) when they were flooded out a few years later and then showed up the next morning with their hands out for the federal money to repair their homes.  And griped and complained about how "slow" the government was to save them from themselves, rebuilding right next to those creeks and rivers.


Hypocrite much?


Still galls me.

redweather
redweather

It probably would have been a better idea to have the students read Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed:  On Not Getting by in America."

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@redweather Yeah, I suggested this downstairs last night.  A good read on surviving for a short time as a minimum-wage type person.  That and "Promises I Can Keep"  and "Schoolgirls" opened my (white, middle class) eyes a good bit. 

Bernie31
Bernie31

This whole Story is the most ludicrous and insane lesson I have ever heard of. Whom ever the managing Principal and Teacher that allowed this nonsense into the School Building. All should be Fired and ordered to stay Out of the field education. Especially! when comes to Children of Color!


I shared this witn a number of Retired APS Teachers and all they could Do is Shake their Heads in utter disbelief . Please No more of this Silliness they all responded. They did not even want to discuss it any further. For ALL knew there was no Good Will or Good Intent in this exercise of STUPIDITY! 


They even went further to say. If this is a Certified employed Teacher that saw, particpated  with it and has not reported it to the Higher UPS and they allowed it to continue. They TOO! should be Terminated!


I must say ....I too agree!

newsphile
newsphile

@Bernie31  ANY CHILD who is in poverty was wronged.  Please stop trying to make everything about race.

Bernie31
Bernie31

@newsphile @Bernie31 - This is the South ....and Georgia is it  NOT?  wether you want to Believe it, accept it or recognize it....Everything here is about RACE & CLASS!


There is No Place You can Go and DO that this will be or is an overiding ISSUE for ALL Parties!


Hate The Game and Not The Player.....

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Bernie31 @newsphile 

I confess that when I first read about this school "game," I thought that there were unacknowledged racial angles to it that school officials should have considered first---especially since Decatur does have a certain black population in poor housing who attend its schools.There is an urban reality in which "poor" and welfare" is code for "black," although it may not be a rural reality.  (Are you a rural resident, Popacorn?) Decatur is part of South DeKalb, includes the old black neighborhood of Oakhurst, and borders minority neighborhoods such as Avondale Estates, Reynoldstown, etc., I think that Decatur school officials should always consider the possible racial implications of what they do.

bu2
bu2

@OriginalProf @Bernie31 @newsphile 

Doesn't impact your point, but Avondale Estates is not, nor has ever been minority.  I wouldn't be surprised if there are not any black people living in Avondale Estates.  You may be confused by the schools near Avondale Estates.  Avondale Elementary and the old Avondale MS were 100% black and low income, but the residents of Avondale Estates didn't send their kids there.

RealLurker
RealLurker

I will try to give the organizers of this exercise the benefit of the doubt.  They probably are actually trying to get the students to understand the plight of people in poverty.  The problem is that you cannot teach such an understanding with a "game".  In a "game" you learn the rules.  You then use the rules to try to win the game.  In the "game" that is described, the students do not go hungry every night.  They probably go home to a house with good heat and good blankets, so they sleep warmly.  They don't have to worry that they will get mugged if they have $5 in their pocket.  They don't have to worry about being evicted.  They don't have to worry about drug addicts invading their apartment.  As such, they do not learn what is is really like to live in poverty.  They also don't have to make any moral judgments.  They don't have to worry about going to jail for stealing.  They don't have to worry about the injustice of taking benefits that were meant for someone else.  They only have to learn the "rules" and try to win the "game".

Starik
Starik

The right-wingers are partially right on this issue and partially wrong, as are the left-wingers. The causes of poverty are as varied as the reasons for success, and the right place to be is in the middle.  It is lonely in the middle.

Bernie31
Bernie31

@Starik - You have your Head stuck some place i cannot even describe. So very sad many of you do not know,want to know or even care how so many Good Americans have been wronged by the very system you Love and adore so much. To many like me. We see this and think this is the saddest part of it all....YOU do not have a CLUE!


The thing is that you are not interested in Truth,Fairness and forget EQUALITY!!

Starik
Starik

@Bernie31 @Starik Bernie, I don't know if you're left or right, but you're out there somewhere...

newsphile
newsphile

So what did this school project accomplish?  Children whose families are working to escape poverty were held hostage and humiliated as their classroom peers saw their daily struggles under the microscope. Children whose families have been on public assistance for generations concluded the day with rationale for more abuse of the system.

I would challenge the wisdom of taking this day from the classroom teachers who need school time for teaching.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

No doubt, the entire "exercise" is designed to convey the message that the poor are in that situation through no fault of their own.  I can hear it now:

"It's not "your fault" you got pregnant at 16, or that you drink a fifth of liquor every night, or that flipping hamburgers is beneath you, you're poor because of the array of government programs you have to sift through on a daily basis."

Give me a effing break.

The path out of poverty is really simple:

1.  Stay in school - and while you're there, try to learn something.

2.  Don't abuse drugs and alcohol.

3.  Don't have kids until you can afford them.

4.  Don't waste your money on stuff you don't need and will be worthless in six months.

5.  Learn about compound interest and how it can work for you and against you.

6.  Recognize that the person most responsible for your success or failure is staring at you in the mirror.

Don't Tread
Don't Tread

"But the most dangerous lesson may be the entire system, including private enterprise and capitalism, is corrupt and that the only solution is more government control."


That's exactly the way it was designed.

Starik
Starik

If, at the end of the program the kids have an extensive discussion of all the issues and viewpoints discussed below the project will have educational value.  Teach the kids to think for themselves, and reach their own conclusions.

BCW1
BCW1

Yes, because that is the plan. The more dependency the more socialized we become. If you want to be successful, work toward it regardless of your circumstances!!!

Bernie31
Bernie31

@BCW1 - Surely You are not saying or implying this is the Plan or Desire of the Poor people who are being subjected to this brutal system of Racism,Bigotry and Prejudice. For this is exactly what it is. 


A System created by all the Good God Fearing White People of America. A system purposely created to Keep things Seperate and Unequal. A system that guarrantees that EXACT OUTCOME as it has been practiced and exercise upon People of Color in America since the signing of The Emancipation Proclamation January 1 ,1863.

Bernie31
Bernie31

This "Game" (Reality for some) I can assure YOU was created by some" DO GOODER " White Person who thought it was a GOOD iDEA! I know that much about it from just this article alone!

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

Anyone who has sent a child to college lately knows that most "scholarships" are need-based and not merit-based these days.  FAFSA is not a friend of the "evil-rich".  This country gives you the opportunity to pull yourself out of poverty in spite of "government" being in the way.  Last time I checked, I did not see an illegal immigration problem going from the USA to Mexico.

Astropig
Astropig

@MiltonMan


Exactly. Thank you. America,warts and all, is still the place where the ambitious and industrious can still do well and do good by their fellow man.Stereotyping all capitalists as evil or all poverty stricken as loutish is beneath our dignity as a society

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

"Today’s event will take place during the school day, and all ninth grade students will be required to participate. In addition to watching a documentary about income inequality and helping to assemble food packets, students will participate in what is described as “an intensive poverty simulation.”"


Yep - teach those kids that they are poor because of those evil rich people.  Using a church for this????  Educators are so adamant about being anti-Christian yet they use a church to spew their propaganda-garbage.

EdUktr
EdUktr

Would be far more helpful to require liberal teachers (and journalists) to participate in similar games that illustrate: how poor personal choices affect life outcomes, how high taxes discourage hard work, how government-directed social programs too often have counterproductive results ...

... and how class warfare and race are exploited by society's malcontents to further their own selfish agenda.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Why does this demonstration not focus on:

How to survive on $1560 a month for a family of five.

How to take ANY job available to support your family - for the dad.

How to file for child support from the father (will be needed for the daughter).

How to prevent pregnancies.

How to give up all unnecessary items to survive - cell phones, cable tv, etc.  Shop for clothing at the thrift store.  Move into the cheapest, smallest housing available.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

@class80olddog


You have so many points to make and some are valid. However, wouldn't it be even more interesting if the students got to live in the shoes of the 1% for a day. They could see how they pay for high powered lawyers and accountants so they can avoid paying taxes through the loopholes they asked and got for when the made generous political campaign donations to our politicians; maybe they run a corporation and get to move their company off-shore so they can avoid paying taxes here; maybe they pay for aggressive lobbyists to go to D.C. and push their agendas that will make them even richer while sticking it to the man; perhaps they claim more deductions from our government through the very lucrative cooperation welfare program that, again, allows them to claim more than they pay in taxes. I think that would be a fruitful exercise for all our students. 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

I find the paternalistic, privileged, class-biased, and just plain snooty attitude of this entire school demonstration painful and hard to take. I have known some very poor people with pride and some self-reliance, and cringe to think of their children watching this.

niecey678
niecey678

Mr. Billingsley, I totally get what you are saying. Are poor people inherently liars and thieves? Not at all. However, unfortunately what you encountered was not far from reality at all. Lower income/poor people are made to lie in order to survive on a regular basis. Can you tell the food stamp or TANF office that you sometimes get help from friends, family, or neighbors? Hell no. If you do your guaranteed allotment of monthly food stamps will be cut down (even further) or off. If you get one cent more towards your housing allowance, your utility allowance will be cut by $10. If you or your kids get a job, you might want to keep quiet about it until DFCS finds out on their own. That will give you a little time to figure out what to do when they cut your benefits by how much your child makes. You always feel like you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. IDo the people that you have to go to in order to request any type of benefit talk down to you...on a regular basis...like you want to be in this situation...in front of your kids? Absolutely! I guess they think that somehow they are motivating you by showing you what an awful person you are by needing/requesting help. But life is hard enough. You beat yourself up enough. You don't need Sally at the unemployment office beating you up too.

You may want to do your own research of what it is like to live in poverty. A survey (formal or informal). Read some scholarly literature on poverty and the toll it takes. NPR did a great piece on how being poor leads to poor decision making. Ask to follow a person around as they try to get assistance from some of the agencies. Have your family take the food stamp challenge. Find out how much in benefits a family that is the same size as yours qualifies for and living on that amount. Open your mind to consider what set of circumstances might lead you to be poor (missed paycheck, loss of a job, etc.) I think after a few months, you'll see things a little differently.

bu2
bu2

@niecey678 

And instead of a simulation, they could just have them watch Slumdog Millionaire.

CBinDECATUR
CBinDECATUR

Thanks Niecey. I did not mean to imply the the poor don't deserve both sympathy and attention. Helping the poor escape their condition, as well as creating conditions to help the middle class rise, are important issues that deserve the attention of policy makers. What I objected to was that this program seemed so biased in favor of liberal political solutions that parents should be required to give permission for their teens to participate. I expressed this idea with board members a month prior to the event. I wrote that a controversial program should be treated like a field trip away from school. A permission form stating the purpose of the program should be signed by the parents and on file prior to the event. Parents should have SOME influence over the day to day activities of their teens, especially when the topic may be controversial.

As a teacher, I often set up extra curricular activities that allowed students to participate in the political process and service projects. I invited both liberal and conservative leaders and organizations to speak to students while on trips to Washington, D.C. and visiting the Golden Dome in Atlanta. I encouraged students to volunteer for the 2008 Obama campaign (even chaperoning one of the events), the 2010 Chambliss re-election campaign and other political activities. The service projects I organized raised thousands of dollars that the students donated to various charities. All of these activities required a signed permission form. Parents made the decision, not me or the administration, to participate.

Thanks again for your response. I look forward to reading DHS student feedback on the program.

bu2
bu2

The teacher is really right, especially in the political arena, about respect for different viewpoints.  The left accuses the right of being self-righteous, but is absolutely the worst about that, vilifying those who disagree with them as corrupt or evil, when the reality is, to quote a 70s song, "We both just disagree."  There are different ideas about how to solve problems.  Respecting other viewpoints is a key ability in learning.  You can't learn when you think you already know all the answers.  You don't.  As Clint Eastwood said, "A man's got to know his limitations."

bu2
bu2

@Wascatlady @bu2 

Well it was really Dirty Harry saying it.  I guess Clint should know he is limited in doing political conventions.

bu2
bu2

Nice article.


Some of these simulations can be pretty powerful.  I remember playing an 1880s union/employer type simulation in American History back in the 70s and most of the students really got into it.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@bu2  And in that union/employer simulation - did they mention the jobs that get lost because a company is paying exorbitant wages and workers won't do other labor because "it's not my job".  See Chevrolet.  Toyota was kicking their butt.

niecey678
niecey678

@class80olddog @bu2 the economy was global in the 1880s. ever heard of the slave trade? maybe we should unburden the poor, overworked, and taken advantage of employers and go back to a simpler time when employers didn't pay workers any wages at all. :-/

bu2
bu2

@classdog

This was the 1880s, before the globalization of the economy.

bu2
bu2

@niecey678 @class80olddog @bu2 


Globalization was VERY limited compared to today. You didn't have to worry about your product being manufactured in a half dozen different countries by competitors looking for the lowest wage.  BTW, the African slave trade was ended by the US and Britain in 1808.  The US had only domestic trades after that.