The Poverty Project

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Help students remove prejudices they might have and dispel public myths regarding the "poor" through this five-month project.

"Mom, I get into the dance for $4 tonight if I bring a canned good for the poor." She walks to the pantry, grabs a can of peas that she can't stand anyway and gets into a dance for $1 less.

This is as close as it gets — to poverty — for countless students raised in (relatively) comfortable settings in the United States. For these students, Harold Melvin, a Motown singer had it right: "Wake up all you teachers, you got to teach a new way."

For the past seven years, middle and high school students around the country have participated in a five-month journey called the "Poverty Project." The goal is to help students remove prejudices they might have and dispel public myths regarding the "poor" among us. Each activity focuses on understanding the conditions of poverty and prompts study of social causes.

For my 6th- 7th- and 10th-graders, the Poverty Project began with each student pretending he/she is a single parent with a 7- and a 2-year-old. They searched the classifieds for an apartment, a leased car, daycare and, of course, jobs. They learned to budget.

Then one morning, they got laid off. After researching the current minimum wage and public entitlement in their state, they slashed their expenses.

Kristi, who agonized over the decision to choose public entitlement, exclaimed: "I thought welfare was for people who didn't want to work. WRONG! Some people either can't find a job, or can't take a minimum-wage job because they won't make enough money to cover rent and daycare."

Working in groups, the students then researched a subtopic of poverty. After two months, these young people knew more about lack of affordable housing, welfare reform and the effects of poverty on children than most Americans. They published their work on the Internet and presented the findings at the conclusion of the project, a "Hunger Banquet."

More surprises awaited students and their guests at the banquet. Fifteen percent of the attendees were selected randomly to enjoy a sumptuous dinner. Twenty-five percent stood in line for a frugal repast. Sixty percent helped themselves to a slice of bread and a cup of water on the floor. The arrangements represented global demographics about poverty.

These young people have each put a face on poverty. They learned that being poor is not a disease — but that its effects on individuals and society can be life-threatening. They learned that, as human beings, they are obligated to take a stand.

Linda Hanson
St. Aloysius Academy
Bryn Mawr, Pa.

The Poverty Project curriculum is available online or by calling 1-800-232-5533.