A Taste of Life in Poverty

What is it like to live with a low income?

Thanks to our friends at United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, I had the opportunity to take part in a poverty simulation at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton.

A poverty simulation is designed to provide participants with an idea of the struggles people living with low incomes may face in day-to-day life, an idea of how quickly and easily individuals and families can fall into poverty and how difficult it can be to escape the cycle.

The simulation lasts for four 12-minute weeks and four three-minute weekends. There are a variety of stations set up to represent real-life services; banks, pawn shops, an employer and even jail…

At the registration desk, I become Betty Boling; a 39-year-old mother whose husband Ben has just lost his job. Betty has a 16-year-old daughter, Barbara, who is seven months pregnant and a 10-year-old son, Bart, who is a handful. She works full-time for just over $10 an hour. The family has a mortgage and bills to pay, food and clothing to buy and only one income to do it on.

Among the other participants, a cross section of family types are represented, including seniors living alone, single parents, individuals taking care of disabled family members and, of course, the homeless.

 Within the first five minutes, our little family is having a difficult time. Betty is off to work and instructs Ben to inquire about Income Assistance while the kids are at school. Betty finishes work, cashes a paycheque and buys bus passes. When she arrives home, the mortgage needs to be paid, the kids need money for school supplies and there will be no Income Assistance. That paycheque is all but gone and no one remembered to buy food.

After the fourth week, Betty has been to work consistently and cashed four paycheques but the family is already stuck in the poverty cycle. Betty finds out that the kids have been selling drugs at school and Ben still hasn’t got a job...

After a single hour in an activity that only simulated poverty, many participants felt frustrated and embarrassed by their situation and nearly everyone felt hopeless and stressed about the lack of time. Despite the fact that I, as Betty, kept a job and earned the money, I felt upset for being a negligent mother to my imaginary children.

Many participants said they began to feel de-humanized, taken advantage of and worthless when they weren’t making progress. The volunteers acting as bankers or social service agents became less than empathetic. It became difficult to stay patient. Some turned to illegal activities to get by, ended up in jail or were evicted from their homes. Many forgot or couldn’t afford to buy food one or more times. Some didn’t get any food at all…

A saving grace for many participants was the small Community Organization tucked away in the corner. While many didn’t think to visit it, those that did received a variety of supports; vouchers for food or clothing, bus passes and more. We all realized the importance of supporting real-life community organizations when we can, so that they are there, if and when we need help.

In all, the session was just a very small taste of what some families go through every day. I think we can all agree that everyone needs help sometimes and no one should be made to feel worthless because of their situation. Remembering that is key to making our community a better place to live.