Participants step into shoes of individuals with low incomes

Approximately 80 participants, including about 50 Community Action Region VI staff members, participated in the poverty simulation held Monday, April 4, at the Gladstone Inn & Suites.

welfare workshop bank
Participants in a poverty simulation go the bank in their "community" Monday, April 4, at the Gladstone Inn & Suites.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

JAMESTOWN – Participants in a simulation held in Jamestown Monday, April 4, stepped into the shoes of real-life people with low incomes to see if they could survive living in poverty for one month.

“We are talking about 100% to 125% of poverty, so a family of four would be $33,000 per year,” said Andrea Olson, executive director of Community Action Partnership of North Dakota.

Approximately 80 participants, including about 50 Community Action Region VI staff members, participated in the poverty simulation hosted by Community Action Partnership of North Dakota and Community Action Region VI held at the Gladstone Inn & Suites. Participants emulated real-life clients of Community Action Partnership of North Dakota to understand poverty through an experiential setting and learned about the day-to-day life for families with low to moderate income.

Kristina Brownell, executive director for Community Action Region VI, said the poverty simulation was good for her staff to get a perspective on what the agency’s clients experience on a daily basis.

“Sometimes you just need a little reminder and just a refresher that this is what people are going through,” she said.


Community Action Partnership of North Dakota is a private, nonprofit membership organization that represents Community Action agencies in the state, according to its website. The website states Community Action agencies enable low- and moderate-income people to secure the opportunities they need to obtain and maintain self-sufficiency by combining local, state, private and federal resources.

Community Action Partnership of North Dakota has statewide programs such as ND Rent Help, Sportsmen Against Hunger, Supportive Services for Veteran Families, Energy Share and the Weatherization Assistance Program.

Community Action Region Vi programs and services include Energy Share, Head Start for children ages 0-5, financial counseling, food pantry, individual and family services, weatherization and trying to find help clients with emergency services, according to its website.

During the simulation, participants in the “community” bought groceries, went to work, took their children to school and paid for rent and other expenses including utilities, transportation, cellphone, clothing, health care and other unexpected events. Expenses were based on average amounts.

“They are emulating actual Community Action clients using actual wages, actual jobs and actual household makeups,” Olson said. “There are about 26 different family makeups that are represented.”

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Participants in a poverty simulation play a role as a North Dakota family who are living on a low income.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

She said some family makeups included ones where the primary breadwinner could not earn an income because of a medical event or is no longer part of the family, grandparents raising their grandchildren or where almost everyone in the household is working.

“A lot of them are what I would consider folks that are working but not making a livable wage,” she said.

Participants also learned statistics about poverty in North Dakota and Stutsman County. About 39.7 million people in the U.S. live in poverty, and 11.5% of North Dakota households live in poverty, according to Olson’s PowerPoint presentation that included information about why people are living in poverty.


Community Action Partnership of North Dakota helps more than 20,000 people annually, including almost 4,000 who lack health care, more than 3,000 with a disability, 1,800 senior citizens, more than 7,400 children and over 600 veterans. Community Action Partnership has eight agencies across North Dakota that provide services for people experiencing poverty in all 53 counties in North Dakota, Olson said.

Olson’s PowerPoint presentation states common myths and facts of poverty include:

  • It is the individual’s fault. A variety of different factors contribute to an individual’s experience of poverty. 
  • People experiencing poverty are lazy. In order to survive, many people who experience homelessness are constantly searching for necessities such as food, shelter and a source of income. 
  • All people experiencing homelessness are addicts. Many people who experience homelessness do not struggle with substance abuse problems or addictions. Only a percentage of those who are experiencing homelessness deal with addictions. 
  • People experiencing poverty should just find a job. Some individuals experiencing poverty are employed. Even when individuals experiencing poverty find jobs, they are often part-time or minimum-wage positions, and the work fails to adequately meet their needs because of expensive housing costs.
  • There are plenty of adequate services and supports to help those experiencing poverty. Many solutions and supports for homelessness have focused on emergency services, such as shelters and food banks. For individuals who are trying to escape a cycle of poverty and homelessness, emergency services alone are not adequate.

Olson said the living wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment in North Dakota is around $16 per hour. A minimum-wage worker who makes $7.25 an hour would need to work 73 hours per week in North Dakota to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment, according to a Forum News Service story.
In North Dakota, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $864, which means a household must earn $2,879 per month or $34,552 per year to afford the rent and utilities without paying more than 30% of its income on housing, Olson’s PowerPoint presentation states. That level of income over a 40-hour work week for one year translates to an hourly housing wage of $16.61 per hour.

Olson also talked about the “cliff effect” – financial gain that results in hardship. For example, if someone is making $11.50 per hour with a monthly net earned income of $1,794, the individual might be eligible for assistance such as the Child Care Assistance Program. If the same person receives a raise to $12 per hour and has a monthly net earned income of $1,872, the individual might not be eligible for assistance.

“Most of the programs at Community Action or Social Services, they are going to a 100% to about 185% of the federal poverty guidelines, so if somebody comes to Community Action and they are a family of four, we can help them if they make $34,688 or less,” Olson said. “If they come to us and they are a family of four and make $35,500, they are overqualified for our services.”

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Andrea Olson, executive director of Community Action Partnership of North Dakota, spoke about individuals living in poverty.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Brownell said it is unfortunate for low-income families to make a decision to either work and spend a majority of their income on child care or stay home with the child.

Olson’s PowerPoint states families pay $191.25 per week for one child for child care, which equals almost $10,000 per year. Over the course of six years, a family with two children pays more than $119,340 total for child care.

Masaki Ova joined The Jamestown Sun in August 2021 as a reporter. He grew up on a farm near Pingree, N.D. He majored in communications at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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