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Poverty simulation educates people on community needs

Jayme Steighner, KEYS program facilitator at Butler County Community College, moves her game piece along “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle

Participants in a United Way workshop on Tuesday, March 26, hosted at Butler SUCCEED embodied characters in a game, some of whom were struggling to pay day-to-day bills while others could dip into savings to pay for unexpected expenses.

The board game is based on real calls the United Way’s 211 line received from people in need, and the corporate engagement manager for the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Sherrie Dunlap Gallagher, said the game was a reflection of the lives of these individuals.

“One unexpected expense could be catastrophic, could really lead someone into a place of crisis, homelessness or any number of things,” Dunlap Gallagher said. “One car bill, one appliance goes, any of that could be kind of devastating for a family.”

The Poverty Spiral simulation was created by the United Way, and different regional offices host workshops for communities to learn about populations with income challenges. On Tuesday, 10 people from community organizations participated in the workshop, where they played through the Poverty Spiral board game, then learned about how the situations they had to choose between reflected real life circumstances.

Each player in the board game was assigned a character, and each turn saw players pick up a situation card that presented a choice where players had to choose from two normally unfavorable responses. Each character had a different back story and started from a different spot on the board’s spiral-shaped path. Choices would see the players either move away from the center of the board, stay in place or fall further down the spiral.

Jayme Steighner, KEYS program coordinator at Butler County Community College, played a wheelchair-bound single 20-something, who started close to the center of the spiral. She and some of her staff who attended the simulation work with people in a similar demographic each day, Steighner said.

“We work with low-income students and many of them are faced with a lot of challenges where they have to make decisions like this,” Steighner said.

Steighner said the simulation and information presented by Dunlap Gallagher helped her get a sense of what social working agencies are up against when it comes to the underprivileged population.

Dunlap Gallagher said many of the people who contact the United Way are within the ALICE population. ALICE stands for Asset-Limited Income-Constrained and Employed. The United Way considers a household of four individuals making under $5,990 a month to be within the ALICE population. Dunlap Gallagher said this demographic is above the federal poverty level income-wise, but an emergency or unexpected expense could be detrimental to their living situation.

In 2023, the local 211 line received 4,689 calls. Of those calls, 1,798 were for emergency shelter assistance; 1,118 were for help with utility payments; 716 were for food assistance; and 404 were for employment and income assistance. In 2022 to 2023, 9,624 residents were helped by the United Way’s impact grants.

Jessica Burr, clinical director at the Butler YMCA, said the information Dunlap Gallagher presented — and the knowledge that the game was based on real situations — made the poverty spiral easy to understand.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Burr said. “Choosing a kid to stay back from a field trip or sell some jewelry ... it’s mind-boggling.”

Dunlap Gallagher said the presentation of United Way information combined with the game that participants went through were meant to relate the effect of large-scale needs to a personal level.

“We want people to really build some more empathy; we want people to increase their education and understanding,” Dunlap Gallagher said. “We shouldn’t be blaming the individual; we should be looking at the system as a whole, and where are these systems not benefiting our folks.”

Michelle Green with Butler County Community College, left, moves her game piece along “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Jessica Burr, clinical director at the Butler YMCA, moves her game piece along “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Jessica Burr, clinical director at the Butler YMCA, decides what choice her character should make while playing “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Catharine Lalonde, chairwoman of the Butler County Democratic Committee, left, and Dayna Reen with Butler County Community College play “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Michelle Green with Butler County Community College reads a “Situation and Social Impact” card while playing “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Catherine Lalonde, chairwoman of the Butler County Democratic Committee, left, Dayna Reen with Butler County Community College and Jayme Steighner, BC3’s KEYS program facilitator, play “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Catherine Lalonde, chairwoman of the Butler County Democratic Committee, left, Dayna Reen with Butler County Community College, Jayme Steighner, BC3’s KEYS program facilitator, and Carla Schoentag and Michelle Green, both of BC3, play “The Poverty Spiral” at Butler SUCCEED on Tuesday, March 26. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle

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