Students and Faculty Bring the Faces of Poverty to St. Louis Judges

Community Engagement; Faculty; Public Health

How will I get to work? Did the kids get to school on time? Do we have enough money for food this week?

These are the questions participants confront during the simulation The Faces of Poverty, formerly known as Poverty TRAP. Over the course of two hours, participants simulate one month in the life of a poverty-stricken family, with scenarios based on real people in the St. Louis area. The goal is to help participants understand the complex circumstances, unexpected obstacles, and daily struggles people face when in poverty.

In late 2017, Brown School students in the course “Poverty, Health, and the Law” presented an adapted version of the exercise to over 30 attendees, including six judges, in an effort to bring the person-in-environment methodology to St. Louis city and county judicial proceedings. Linda Raclin, senior lecturer at the Brown School and an expert in health law and policy, led the course.

“Making this kind of learning model available to judges provides context to poverty and maximizes the opportunity to apply the law with equity—specifically to the poor,” said Cynthia Williams, assistant dean for community partnerships at the Brown School.

To transition The Faces of Poverty into a logic model format, Raclin and Williams collaborated with Lu Oros, coordinator of civic engagement programs at Washington University’s Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, and with ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the best possible legal counsel to homeless and poor individuals facing prosecution.

“With this model,” Oros explained, “we ask questions and showcase how different answers lead to different consequences. The decisions people make to survive can lead them to this place when they’re in front of the judge.”

“One question, for instance, asks what you would do if your car breaks down and you are on a fixed income,” Oros said. “Do you spend it on food, the car, or bus fare? Every time you make a decision like that, it affects what happens next. Not everything is as black and white as you think it is. These people are just trying to survive.”

On December 8, when students presented to the judges, they also discussed topics including employment, transportation, income and budget, health, stop-and-search disparities, and fines. The event ended with a question and answer period, and several judges shared what they are currently doing to be more empathetic while also staying within the guidelines of local laws.

“We wanted to create an environment so that the judges could develop empathy for the person in front of them,” Oros said. “I understand that they are supposed to review the circumstances of the person, but there isn’t always time for that. This training might influence their decisions before they impose a fine or other punishment that will prevent the person from moving ahead.”

When asked about the intended outcome of the logic model exercise, Oros noted that, “One of the things that I think is really important for people to realize is that it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them;’ it’s ‘we.’ A person may find themselves homeless or in poverty, but this does not define who they are. Especially someone who finds themselves without a home: they had a life before, and they will have a life after.”