A test of empathy

 “Living on the Edge” program demonstrates the real-life implications of poverty.

living on the edge

By Kate Watson

I’m running late as I board the Number 1 bus at 4:30pm en route to Dalhousie University. A toddler is screeching loudly. There are no empty seats–unless you count the one that’s taken up by a snoozing lady’s shopping bags. I haven’t had lunch, and I know there’s going to be no time for supper.

I’m a middle-aged freelance writer with a husband and three grown children, and I’m feeling grumpy, stressed out and a little sorry for myself.

But flash forward an hour, and suddenly my life seems pretty cushy.

At 5:30, I’m in a room filled with 80 students from the Dalhousie School of Social Work, and we’re all taking part in the United Way of Halifax’s poverty simulation called Living on the Edge.

The simulation is meant to help people understand the challenges faced by the one in eight citizens of HRM who live in poverty, and to cultivate the empathy that comes with understanding.

The participants have been given roles to play. I am Orlando Olson, a 21-year-old male who’s attending community college. My mom has left the family, and my dad has just been imprisoned for 45 days. That leaves me in charge of my 13-year-old twin sisters Olivia and Olana (two students assume these roles) and my 3-year-old brother Owen (represented by a cuddly doll).

A month in the life of our family and the families around us is represented by four 15-minute “weeks”. In that time, I have to go to school, pay bills, buy food, and get Owen to and from daycare. It doesn’t take long until I realize the only way to make ends meet is to get a part-time job.

Olivia and Olana help out as much as they can, but they’re too young to work. They spend a lot of time on their own. Olivia ends up shoplifting. Olana gets suspended for fighting.

We all go hungry one week because I don’t leave enough time to get to the grocery store before it closes. Fortunately, the food bank is there to help.

Another week, I make an offhand remark about the baby having a cough when I drop him off at daycare. They won’t take him while he’s ill. I end up paying a near-stranger to look after him while I’m at school.

The last week, I don’t make it to school at all. There’s just too much to look after.

Obviously, playing a role for an hour is a very tiny window into the realities of living in poverty, but I was surprised by the real feelings the simulation evoked in me: I felt guilty for leaving the kids alone so much; I felt stressed and frazzled from trying to complete all the necessary tasks; I tried very hard to make ends meet, and felt frustrated when they didn’t.

It’s often said that before you judge another, you must walk a mile in their shoes.

Taking part in Living on the Edge opened my eyes to the difficult paths that people living in poverty in our community tread every day.


This story originally ran in the February-March issue of The North Dartmouth Echo. The Echo is a community newspaper published five times a year. It’s dedicated to sharing good news stories about the community of North Dartmouth and is an excellent resource for keeping people informed on social programs, events, organizations and small businesses in the area.