Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poverty Simulator

 A week ago, Sean found an article about a site called playspent.org. The article claimed that the site was "designed to help people understand the challenges and trade-offs faced by low-income people with insecure employment.  The “game” begins when you’ve been unemployed, have only $1,000 left in your bank account, and need to get a low wage job."

"Interesting," I said, a bit distracted as I was playing tug-of-war with the dog. "Bookmark the article for me, I'll go over it later."

I completely forgot about it until yesterday morning. I decided I'd give it a go, see how I did. And on my first try, I survived the month with $572 dollars left over. "This is easy." I thought. I mean, seriously, how could anyone fail this?

Then on a lark I posted the link to my facebook page and challenged my friends and family to play and post their results. Within minutes, I got a response from an old high school friend. "I ran out of money on day 10."

Flabbergasted, I replied "Yikes! What did you do???"

She responded "No clue LOL did it on my phone...will have to try it on the computer."

As the day went on, more of my friends responded:

I made it through with $44 but rent is due tomorrow. Lost my job though. Ouch."

I already played this in real life..."

I made it to the 26th. Would have been fine but got caught up on the question of what to do with my pet. Working on the premise that this was real life, I don't have anyone who can take them, and I won't take them to a shelter. So I "paid" it and went broke."

Final result, $105 but rent is due and I need a root canal that I can't afford. I know it was fictional, but I felt a little sad when I had to choose between seeing my child star in the school play or make an extra $50 for groceries. It's eye opening and makes me realize how truly blessed I am to be able to buy fresh, healthy foods, health care, and all the little extras we take for granted."

I was surprised by the variation in the answers, so I went back in and played it a few more times - each time making different decisions and seeing how it affected my ability to survive. I did fairly well overall, but how much of that was because of growing up poor, learning to make do or do without? My husband had a slightly better financial upbringing than I did, so I had him try it.

He failed - spectacularly - not even making it to day 8.

I feel like this is a great program to have young teens go through (in fact, one of my FB friends stated she was going to have her kids try it) as well as for people who have always been decently well-off (which to me means earning over $1200/year per person in your household). It's a real eye-opener for those who have never really given poverty much of a thought.

I decided to call my dad and have him run through it over the phone. He almost immediately gave up. Not because it was too hard, though! Rather, he took issue with the realism of the program. "$800 a month for rent? That's unacceptable - just put down that I pitched a tent in a field or something." Well, the program didn't have a "pitch a tent" option, nor even a "live out of my car" option, so he refused to go any farther.

I could understand his frustration with the simulator - I had a few issues myself. For example, there was an option to either spend $30 to wash your clothes at a laundromat, or you could choose to wash your laundry at a friend's house. But what if you don't have any friends with washers or dryers? I've been in that situation, and I ended up washing my clothes - and my children's clothes - in the bathtub by hand, and then wringing them out as best I could and hanging them around the apartment to dry. And that was in a dinky little one-bedroom apartment that I shared with my three sons and a roommate.

That's just one example of the limitedness of this program. For those who have been poor and survived it, the struggles cited are realistic, but the options to solve them were restrictive, limited. Poor people have to be creative in order to survive (I say this with a wry grin, looking off to the side of my computer at the old sweater I am cutting up to make mittens for my younger boys). I've had to sew my own clothing, patch kids jeans and readjust hems for growing children. I've had to ride the bus to the grocery store with three children (and then try to carry all our groceries home in one trip). I've eaten plain baked potatoes for dinner every night for a month, because I was able to get a great deal - 30 lbs of potatoes for under $5 - and thus was able to let my children have my share of the meat for the month. Being poor is a lot of work!

And yet, remarkably, many Americans romanticize the fight of people during famous poor eras our country has experienced. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Rosie the Riveter during the World Wars, so on and so forth. If you are poor during a time of national crisis, you are admired for suffering for your country.

But if you have the misfortune of being poor during a "normal" time period, your struggles aren't romanticized or admired. Rather, you are treated like a lazy good-for-nothing pimple on the armpit of society. I know. Because I've lived it. 

I've been yelled at by a total stranger in the checkout line for buying an $8 bakery cake for my son's birthday - how dare I spend HER tax dollars on such frivolities? I should get off my lazy butt and bake a cake from a mix. I wanted to yell at her that I'd happily do that if I had a working oven, but I knew better than to stand up for myself - the last time I had done so I got banned from the store for being rude to customers. When you are poor, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

The simulator on playspent.org doesn't bring up the shame of being poor, or the frustrations and the exhaustion and the worry...but it does introduce some of the stress to those who need to understand it. I would ask those who read this post to try the simulator and then post your results in the comments.

We could all use a little more understanding in this world.

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