‘Poverty simulation’ at Highland Park Country Club canceled amid social media backlash over venue, which isn’t a private country club

A “poverty simulation” that had been planned for this weekend at the Highland Park Country Club has been canceled amid social media backlash, with some commentors criticizing the event’s “tone-deafness” and “rich irony.”

But some of these negative reactions might have stemmed from confusion due to the name of the event’s location — which isn’t a private country club or golf course.

The Highland Park Country Club was purchased by the city in the mid-1990s and now serves as Highland Park’s senior center during regular hours of operation, offering bingo events, grief groups, luncheons and other activities. The location is also used as a private event venue during evenings and weekends, according to Highland Park officials.

The golf course was closed after the 2017 golf season and purchased by the Park District of Highland Park, which recently turned the land into a 100-acre natural space and passive park.

The Preserve of Highland Park opened to the public in 2022 and includes “green lawns, nature-based play areas, specialized native gardens, restored woodlands, and walking and biking trails that connect neighborhoods, downtown Highland Park, and regional biking trails,” according to the park district’s website.

The poverty simulation event had been scheduled for Saturday and was billed as an “immersive experience” where participants can “experience what a ‘month’ in poverty feels like,” according to a description of the program. The event was being hosted by the Lake County-based nonprofit Alliance for Human Services in partnership with Highland Park, as well as several other local nonprofits and government agencies.

Participation in the simulation was free but registration was required.

“Together, we will increase resources for those living in poverty to create a more resilient health, human, and education sector,” an event description reads.

The program was expected to draw around 100 participants. The Highland Park Country Club was chosen as the venue because it was the only government-owned space that could accommodate the anticipated attendance, said Amanda Bennett, communications manager for Highland Park.

Bennett said the event was canceled on Thursday “due to public feedback.”

The program came under fire on social media sites earlier this week, with many comments taking jabs at the notion of a poverty simulation taking place at a suburban “country club.”

“The City of Highland Park in Illinois is holding a ‘poverty simulation event’ where woke rich people will pretend to be poor for 2.5 hours while sitting in a comfortable country club,” someone posted on the social media site X, which was formerly known as Twitter. “You can’t make this up.”

“An immersive poverty experience at a country club,” another person posted on Highland Park’s Facebook page, and ended the comment with a laughing emoji.

Bennett said city officials were aware of the posts but don’t respond to comments on the Facebook page — whether the messages are positive or negative — to respect commentors’ First Amendment rights.

City Manager Ghida Neukirch said Highland Park had partnered with social services professionals from the suburb and greater Lake County to offer the immersive experience intending “to raise awareness of the need for resources to support individuals experiencing economic insecurity, and the wide-ranging consequences of this systemic inequity on families and communities.”

“Programs such as this one, which are developed and presented by social services professionals, are intended to bridge that gap,” Neukirch said.

The Alliance for Human Services website describes the poverty simulation as an “experience for those who have not experienced poverty to begin to walk in the shoes of neighbors who have.”

During the program “participants role-play the lives of low-income individuals,” the website said. “Similar to those experiencing poverty, participants are put into situations in which they don’t have enough resources and are forced to make difficult choices that can negatively affect them and their families.”

These events are held throughout the year, in various locations in Lake County, according to the nonprofit’s website. After a similar event in Lake Forest in 2022, a risk manager for a bank described leaving with a more nuanced understanding of poverty, according to a Lake County News-Sun story.

“I left thinking, what can I do to help?” he said. “I could volunteer, contribute and be a very educated voter so I know the (candidate) is going to be an advocate for our people.”

Gayle Nelson, executive director of the Alliance for Human Services, added that the simulation “tries to help those who haven’t experienced poverty begin to understand the trauma people living in poverty may feel, and their resilience.”

“They try and work, they try to get food, they try to drop their kids off to school, with all of the challenges someone in poverty might face — not having enough money for transportation, not having enough money for food,” she said.

Some critics on social media also questioned locating the event in Highland Park — which is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the Chicago area, with a median household income of over $150,000, according to recent census data.

But just over 3% of Highland Park’s population lives in poverty, census statistics show.

Nelson also noted that adjacent to Highland Park is the suburb of Highwood; 13% of Highwood’s population lives in poverty and more than 8% of Lake County residents are impoverished as well, according to census data.

“The suburbs as a whole have a stereotype of being opulent,” she said. “Of course, it’s not accurate. There are people of all income levels in the city; there are people of all income levels in the suburbs. … What we’re trying to do with this type of event is break down those stereotypes.”