Carson Sullivan never worried about putting food on the table for his family.
The Vermillion High School student learned all about the process, however, when he took part in the South Dakota Youth Congress poverty simulation at the USD School of Law Wednesday afternoon. The simulation kicked off the annual, two-day South Dakota Youth Congress conference for high school juniors and seniors nominated based on their interest in public policy and leadership qualities.
During the simulation, students from across the state role-played the lives of low-income families. Some were homeless, while others were disabled. Some of the participants role-played senior citizens living off Social Security benefits.
Still, their job was to provide the basic necessities and shelter for their families during the course of four 15-minute "weeks."
Within minutes of the simulation starting, Sullivan was at the Department of Social Services, asking how to obtain food stamps. The experience made him feel "very flustered" while filling out paperwork.
"I really don't know how I'm going to pay for this," Sullivan said.
Other students had similar reactions.
Tiffany Ortman of Canistota, and Tim Fagerness of Sioux Falls, had only $6 in their bank account, and a family to support. Fagerness role-played a husband with a disability, while Ortman role-played a stay-at-home mom, raising their two children.
"It's kind of tight," Ortman said of her family's situation. "It makes you nervous."
"It makes you wonder what happens if something bad happens," Fagerness added.
But the experience wasn't just helpful for the students involved. Adults assisted with the simulation by acting as real-life human service agencies: a bank, jail, general employer, food center and more.
Aberdeen native Jim Ragatz, who is also involved with the Kids State Voting program, was one of the adult assistants at the simulation.
He doesn't think students are always given credit for understanding public policy issues like poverty. The simulation gave them a chance to voice their opinions and thoughts, something they may be laughed at or not taken seriously for at their schools back home.
"You don't realize how much they can understand," Ragatz said. "They have such enthusiasm."
Organizers for the South Dakota Youth Congress agreed that students do very well with public policy topics. While this year's theme is poverty, past topics have included energy and education.
"They're coming in with a blank slate," said John Usera, P.h.D., one of the primary organizers for the event. "It's about getting good, accurate information before you make a good decision."
"It's really, really powerful. They have a perspective that is unbiased from what adults bring to the table," he added.
Students who take part in the conference are probably already leaders in their schools and communities, said DeVee Dietz, another organizer for the S.D. Youth Congress. Part of their job is to return to their homes, and apply what they learned to their families, school and community.
Usera said the S.D. Youth Congress has been a viable and important part of the state's history since forming in 1998.
"If you look at the students who've taken part in it before, you can see they've taken (leadership) roles today," he said.
Past S.D. Youth Congress attendees have gone onto graduate school and have worked as legislative pages.
Dietz said that every student gets something out of the Youth Congress weekend, but this year's poverty simulation, facilitated by Barbara Garcia of the Community Development Division of the City of Rapid City, was something special, and unlike anything they've ever done before.
The simulation was designed to sensitize those who frequently deal with low-income families, as well as to create a broader awareness of the realities of poverty among policymakers and community leaders, Dietz said.
"They really live the life of what they'll be looking into," she added.
Following the simulation, students discussed how they dealt with living in poverty and what can be done to make the situation, in real-life, easier.
"They walk away with a set of skills on how to talk in a different way," Usera said. "Instead of a debate mentality, they leave with a deliberation mentality. Debate is about winning, and deliberation is about coming to a consensus."
The afternoon poverty simulation was hosted by the South Dakota Youth Congress under the Chiesman Center for Democracy, W.O. Farber Center and the USD School of Law.
The conference, made up of 16 students, is stationed in Vermillion through Friday, July 30. For more information about the South Dakota Youth Congress, go to www.chiesmen.org.