Our Community Responds

A Morning in Poverty? How Would You Handle It?

Katharine, our Public Policy Coordinator, reports back on a poverty simulation that helped her learn more about the lives of people struggling with hunger.

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a ‘Poverty Simulation’ organized by WSU Extension and sponsored by the King County Department of Emergency Management. At the exact same time, several members of Congress were participating in the same simulation and facing the same challenges. I knew a little going into it about how the process worked, but the scenario of our family was immediately overwhelming: I was the recently unemployed father in a family with three children including a pregnant teenage daughter. My wife had a full time job making $9 per hour, which was our only income. We had typical monthly bills due: mortgage, utilities, credit cards, student loans, as well as expenses like transportation, and food. With that information, and $200 in savings we were ready.

The simulation is structured in four 15-minute segments, each representing one week, with a 3 minute break in-between for all family members to regroup. There were a number of ‘services’ available to us – employer, bank, grocery store, social services, pawn shop, community health clinic, community action program, etc. – that we were to use to meet our family’s needs during the four weeks. Here are some of the highlights of our family’s four weeks:

  • I spent two weeks, and the start of a third, waiting at the social service office. I had to go back the second time because I forgot our ID cards, then they lost my paperwork, until finally I got $170 for our family;
  • All of our appliances and household items were stolen during the first week while we were out of the house;
  • We received notices the third week for not paying our mortgage or utilities, and I paid only as much as we needed to keep our home and keep our gas and electricity on, but there were still past due balances at the end;
  • The Community Action program was able to help us pay our utilities, but was out of food by the time we went;
  • I felt we were lucky that we didn’t get to the point where we had to rely on the pawn shop or payday lender.

In the end, the most difficult decision our family had to make was to buy food. For our family of five the cost was $110 per week. The first week went by, and we didn’t have any food. Then the second week, and still no food. Third week? No food. In my job, when talking with elected officials, I often talk about how food is often the first thing to get cut because there’s no collector to come around for it. It wasn’t until the fourth week was over that I realized that our family had fallen into that trap. When my wife cashed her first paycheck nearly all of it was taken by the bank to cover payments for credit cards, student loans, and other items. There was also the real threat of losing our house and getting our gas shut off, with actual people coming around to collect on those payments. But no one came to threaten us for not feeding our kids. In the end, due to limited finances and time, we were able to purchase one week’s work of food, during the final week.

When the simulation was over, I felt like our family had done a really good job. Many families received ‘fortune’ cards throughout the simulation, many with unexpected bad news. Our family didn’t receive any, and I think if we did we would have been in real trouble. The decisions we were making were not sustainable, since our income was several hundred dollars below our expenses, so there is no way we would have been able to sustain meeting our basic needs for much longer. But the short term was all we could really think about, in the moment.

This was an incredible experience for me, and another reminder of the lives that are impacted by the work we do at Food Lifeline. If you have a chance to participate in one of these I would definitely recommend it, or are interested in hosting one contact Martha Aitken at WSU Extension. 

In my job, when talking with elected officials, I often talk about how food is often the first thing to get cut because there’s no collector to come around for it. It wasn’t until the fourth week was over that I realized that our family had fallen into that trap. 

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