Poverty in the United States is often seen as a matter of choice and personal responsibility – we work hard, and they don’t. In reality, the difference between “us” and “them” can often be as random as a layoff, divorce, death in the family, medical emergency, or natural disaster. Nevertheless, the belief that “I’ll never be in that position” runs deep and this mindset, along with issues associated with class culture, and diversity, can pose a range of challenges for even the most well-meaning and sensitive law firm pro bono programs and participating lawyers.

Poverty simulation exercises are one fantastic way to break down barriers and better understand the daily challenges encountered by the poor. These interactive workshops typically feature role play, where participants are divided into “families” with each assigned a different life scenario. Volunteers live the life of that family or the people they encounter for one month (often four 15-minute “weeks”), trying to work; buying food; maintaining housing; paying for daily living expenses, such as utilities and transportation; keeping children in school; and handling unexpected emergencies. Participants learn about the realities that low-income clients face and the profound impact pro bono services have on individuals, families, and communities.

Now, thanks to the pro bono work of a design team, you can participate in an online simulation: Start with $1,000 and try to make it through one month with money left at the end. Sounds like a piece of cake. Good luck succeeding while facing the obstacles that bring countless people to need pro bono assistance every day. How would you resolve dilemmas such as choosing between feeding your family and keeping the heat and lights on; paying a hospital bill that you can’t afford because you don’t have health insurance; or finding childcare when your child is sick and you can’t afford to stay home from work? Whether you run out of money before the end of the month or make it through with some savings, the experience may change the way you think about the harsh realities of poverty and homelessness; renew your sense of compassion and human kindness; and heighten your understanding of the impact your pro bono legal assistance can have on those in your community.

Play SPENT and leave a comment and let us know what you’ve learned from the experience.