Clinical Law Prof Blog

Editor: Jeffrey R. Baker
Pepperdine University
School of Law

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

But How Do I Teach...?: Poverty

This section, “But How Do I Teach…?: TOPIC” will focus on a different skill, area or lesson for clinical teachers and others alike to consider using/adapting for their teaching needs.  The first focus topic is that of poverty – a situation that most clinical clients find themselves in when they seek our services. 

A recent article by Steven K. Berenson (titled Preparing Clinical Law Students for Advocacy in Poor People's Courts (43 New Mexico Law Review 363 (2013)) highlights that teaching students about poverty, and practicing in poor people's courts, often falls on the shoulders of clinical faculty given the clientele we serve.  While this may be true, do we teach poverty in clinics?  In larger settings?  Why/why not? If so, how?  For newer clinicians, unless you have had training on this issue, highlighting it as a topic for your clinic may seem daunting.  We know that poverty exists, but how do we convey understanding and suspension of judgment to our students (not forgetting that some of our students might have personal familiarity with poverty)?  What follows is an overview of a basic poverty lecture and an interactive exercise for you and your students to work through, even if you teach this regularly.

What is poverty?  Poverty is recognized really as two main types – generational and situational.  Generational poverty occurs when your client is poor, their family has been poor, their family’s family  has been poor – in other words, poverty is all they know.  Situational poverty occurs when you have a client who might have been middle or upper class, but due to debt, foreclosure, medical bills, etc. they are thrust into poverty due to their situation and their circumstances.

Offered here is a proposed classroom exercise that has been run with great success the last several years in a clinical setting.  The platform for discussion comes from an interactive poverty simulation known as Spent (link follows below).  Allow about an hour for the exercise.  When introducing poverty to students, defining the two main types as noted above offers a great general context for the types of clients they may be faced with.  With each form of poverty comes its own challenges, judgment and client expectations.  To get the students to work through the obstacles faced by our clients, have them pair up with a laptop, pad of paper and a pen. Direct them to the Spent scenario as listed below, and tell them to work through the entire thirty days of the scenario, keeping track of their choices as they go, giving them about 20 minutes to a half hour to do so.  At the end of the exercise each pair reports back on how much they had left at the end of the month, and what the easiest and most difficult choice was and why.  Once everyone is done, a group discussion can be held for 20-30 minutes.  All monetary outcomes are written up for comparison, and each pairing is asked to reflect on the above and give their general impressions of how it felt to survive in poverty.  The amounts each pairing ends up with will vary dramatically, as will their impressions of their ability to survive.  Most students end up trying the scenario again within the allotted time frame “to try and win” without success – which is also a great lesson in itself – how exactly does one “win” in poverty?  Great question.  And fuel for more discussion.  If you have never completed Spent for yourself, spare a half hour to reconnect with some basic situations and dilemmas.

Additional Resources:  The newly released textbook Poverty Law, Policy & Practice by Juliet Brodie, Clare Pastore, Ezra Rosser and Jeff Selbin (available via Wolters Kluwer or Amazon).  Simulations include the Poverty USA Tour (available at http://www.povertyusa.org/the-state-of-poverty/poverty-usa-tour/) and Spent – an interactive simulation putting you in survival mode for 30 days in Poverty (available at playspent.org/playspent.html).  Lastly, Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days Series, Episode 1 makes for excellent watching as Morgan and his fiancé try to survive on minimum wage for 30 days. 

Have ideas/exercises/topic suggestions?  We would love to hear them!  Please send any suggestions to chagangr@iupui.edu.  We look forward to hearing from you!

April 22, 2014 in Games, New Clinical Faculty, New Clinical Programs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)