The Game of Life: Explaining and addressing poverty

Leah Berger leads a “Game of Life” workshop

by Leah Berger
For the Federation CJA Social Advocacy Committee

Life is hardly a game when you lack basic necessities and the government programs and policies intended to help people living in dire poverty just don’t cut it. Debuted at this year’s Le Mood festival of Jewish learning, arts and culture, the Federation CJA Social Advocacy Committee created The Game of Life to expose some of the realities experienced by people living in poverty, including the difficult decisions they have to make on a daily basis, as well as current advocacy campaigns that individuals can become involved in towards influencing policy change.


Montreal Jews living below the poverty line

The Federation CJA Social Advocacy Committee is a coalition of social service agencies and groups within the Jewish community, including Agence Ometz, Auberge Shalom pour femmes, Caldwell Residence, Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec, Cummings Centre for Seniors, Hillel, Federation CJA & Federation CJA West Island, Project Genesis and the Y.M/Y.W.H.A.

The Committee seeks social change through policy change, trying to influence public social and economic policies to ensure that they benefit vulnerable populations of both the Jewish community and the wider society. By strategically acting hand-in-hand with Quebec-wide coalitions, the Committee functions through concerted lobbying efforts, community organizing or mobilizing, and education for action – joining together with others outside the Jewish community to strive for shared goals. This approach helps to make sure that the Committee is acting for the common good and also optimizing its chances for victories.

An essential Jewish value

Social advocacy issues are critical to the Jewish community because they promote the Jewish values of seeking tzedek (justice) and tikun olam (repairing the world). The Jewish community has a collective responsibility to support our community members and at the same time, we have a responsibility to hold our governments accountable and ensure that they implement the necessary policies and programs to prevent and end injustices, including poverty. Such ethical and strategic action benefits both the Jewish community and the wider population.

It is for this reason that the Committee conceived of The Game of Life. Using an actual game board as a visual cue, workshop participants are presented with a series of challenges experienced by individuals and families living in poverty related to income security, housing, public transportation, and other issues. Through discussion with an animator, participants explore some of the gaps that currently exist between the need that a specific policy is intended to address and its actual impact. In each case, participants are invited to contribute to social policy campaigns organized to enact social change at the systemic level.

The harsh reality of poverty

Imagine a woman and her teenage daughter move to Quebec from across the country to escape a severe domestic violence situation. The mother has a nursing degree but can not currently work because she is suffering from anxiety and stress as a result of her traumatic experience. She receives social assistance, but after paying for her rent, food, and some other basic necessities, she has only a few dollars left. This family is already having trouble making ends meet when they find out that public transportation rates will be increased. The mother knows that if she could only find an apartment with a lower monthly rent, she would have more disposable income and be able to cover the cost of her basic needs. The reality is that the wait for low cost housing can exceed five years. In fact, this family is desperate to move out of their apartment because it is infested with cockroaches. After sending her landlord a formal complaint and receiving no response, the woman and her daughter have been waiting for a hearing at the Rental Board for more than 15 months.

Spreading the word

At a recent workshop provided to McGill students at Hillel, the participants were struck by the sheer complexity and overwhelming challenges experienced by people living in poverty and specifically, the low levels of basic income security provided to individuals in need of financial assistance. “How can individuals survive on welfare when base amounts do not allow you to fare well?”, asked one of the workshop participants.

“The Game of Life workshop gave me great insight into the realities that many poor people in Montreal face,” said Hanna Singer, Head of Social Justice for Hillel McGill and a workshop participant. “It taught me that the best way to reverse this problem is to create sustainable change through government policy.”

Through the course of the workshop, participants were given the opportunity to participate in a postcard campaign organized by local anti-poverty groups to demand that the Societé du transport de Montréal (STM) and City of Montreal reverse their decision to increase public transportation fees as of January 1st, 2013. They were also informed about the “Régie du lentement” campaign, a series of recurring rallies in front of the Rental Board spearheaded by Project Genesis to reduce long and unjust delays for a hearing by hiring more Rental Board judges.

Sherri Uline, a local graphic artist, was so moved by the concept behind this project that she donated her time to design the game board. “I was so inspired by the intention of The Game of Life to dispel stereotypes and call the government to accountability.  The approach of incorporating group problem solving to address these issues instantly captured my interest.”

Michael Chervin, Chair of the Social Advocacy Committee and Executive Director of Project Genesis has been pleased with the response to the Game of Life.  “The Committee’s Game of Life workshop is promoting an understanding of priority social policy issues and engaging people with practical, concerted opportunities to improve public policies,” added Michael Chervin. “Every voice matters, whether of a person or an organization. Together, with voices resonating, we’ve been contributing to positive changes for all.”

For more information, or to find out how you can play the Game of Life, contact Leah Berger, Co-ordinator of the Federation CJA Social Advocacy Committee at or (514) 345-2645 x 3062.

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