photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA
Poverty Simulation

Showing, Not Telling, the Reality of Poverty in the Halls of Congress

Guest post by Lucreda Cobbs


In our work with Members of Congress and their staff, we share a lot of stories, faces, and names of those facing the daily challenges of living in poverty – but we rarely get the chance to bring that reality to the offices of Senators and Representatives.

This week on Capitol Hill, we had the chance to do just that. Along with our co-sponsoring partners at Entergy Corporation, we hosted an interactive simulation that brought to life for two hours a full-scale, immersive experience that showed members of Congress and their staff what it’s like doing your best to just get by.

“Poverty knows no party, or race, or agenda,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) said. “These individuals are navigating a system that is treating them as faceless and nameless problems instead of human beings.”

Throughout the course of the event, a bipartisan group of participating Members of Congress spoke on how the simulation was impacting their understanding of what it’s like to be living in poverty, and how both sides of the aisle can work together to pursue the common good.

“It’s a full-time job to be poor in America,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), “and I don’t think many Americans understand that.” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) referenced Fr. Larry’s Annual Gathering keynote address in summoning us to build a bridge to opportunity, and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.) called the simulation “a chance to walk in the shoes of those impoverished, and those with dreams.” They were joined by Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.).

For about an hour and a half, participants rotated throughout various stations in the room. From bartering appliances for less than their value at the pawn shop, to deciding to use a valuable transportation voucher to go to work or to take their children to school, many found that it was quite the challenge to live their lives fully with so many restrictions.

By the end of the simulation, only one family found that their situation had improved from the start of the exercise. Even when participants found themselves evicted from their homes and exhausted of resources, they found the exercise to be eye-opening and meaningful.

The work of restoring opportunity and reforming our nation’s approach to addressing poverty will continue, but at least one day, the trials and challenges of those living in need were not abstractions to the officeholders in Washington, but were staring them in the face. It was a chance for those with the power to fund and shape our country’s social safety-net programs to walk a mile in the shoes of those in poverty – and many were amazed at how burdensome that journey can be.


Lucreda Cobbs is the Senior Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs in Catholic Charities USA’s Social Policy department. To learn more about CCUSA’s advocacy and government affairs work, click here.