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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

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.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.