Saturday, January 7, 2012

Simulating Poverty to Make a Point

This is a new one for me: the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches holds an interactive poverty simulation periodically, the next of which is this Thursday at the GMCC offices on Lake Street near Chicago Ave.

According to the Star Tribune's Rose French, the simulation is "board-game-like, with up to 50 'players.' They're divided into small groups, each representing a family of five (two parents and children ages 2, 4 and 11) living in the Twin Cities on $3,000 a month. The challenge is to find housing, day care, transportation and health insurance, plus pay for household expenses, food, clothing and entertainment."

That level of income wouldn't put such a family below the official poverty line, but would be called low-income and mean living check to check, just one illness or broken car away from financial ruin.

French quotes GMCC's Gennae Falconer as saying "One of the overlying beliefs people have about poverty is there's a level of choice involved. That they [the poor] have the power to change it." After going through the simulation, participants usually see the complexities and feel stressed by it.

I did an online poverty simulator called Spent a few months ago. The premise of Spent is that you've lost your job and your house, and you're down to your last thousand dollars. You have to find a job, and you're offered options as a restaurant server or as a warehouse or temp worker. To do temp work (my selection), you have to pass a 55-word-per-minute typing test (which I passed). For this, I can get $9 an hour ($306 per week after taxes). Health insurance is then offered, but it costs $275, almost as much as a week's pay. I opted out.

The simulator then offers a slider to figure out where you'll live. It's more expensive to live near work, even though transportation costs go down. If I opt to live 50 miles away, my cost is $762 per month; right next to the office, it's $855. Either way, it's about two-thirds of my income. I think I see problems ahead.

I opted for everything the simulator offered that would bring in money (selling my extra stuff instead of storing it, letting a friend sleep on the couch for $200/month). By making every hard decision they offered (not going to see my kid's play, letting my car's registration lapse, and a lot of other things I can't remember) I made it through the month, but I could see I was on a downward spiral.

It was enlightening, but there were problems I could see with the Spent simulator:

  • It doesn't mention anything about the Earned Income Credit, which would have zeroed out my taxes if I did my withholding correctly.
  • It didn't offer the possibility of renting in a house with other unrelated adults at a much lower cost. (This is how I lived for most of my 20s.) Although the simulator also assumes you're a single parent of a school-age child, so perhaps I'm being unrealistic about that possibility, and the friend on the couch scenario resulted in just about the same thing.
  • The simulator insists I have a car, even though I chose to be close enough to work that I could  bus. Then it threw unexpected car expenses at me, which I would not have had if it had let me go carless. So why bother letting me live that close if you're going to insist on a car?
  • The grocery purchase doesn't acknowledge either the existence of food stamps or that I might participate in a community garden for part of the year.
I'd love to try the GMCC simulation to see if or how it limits choices to make its point. I can't make it to this Thursday's, but I think I'll find out when their future sessions will be. Like the Doctors Without Borders mock refugee camp I visited several years ago, I'm sure it will be informative and moving.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I'll add one more problem with Spent -- there's no monthly cable bill. But it still gives some idea of what it's like to live with every bit of spending being a crucial decision.

I made it through the month with $700+ and a rotten conscience, and then all but $9 went to the rent.