Experience: Poverty

20 Feb

How long can you last?

“14 million Americans are unemployed.  Now imagine you’re one of them.”  These words greet users who accept the challenge and “play” Spent, an interactive month-in-the-life as an unemployed parent with mounting bills and dwindling savings.  Launched by the Urban Ministries of Durham, a non-profit organization providing care for Durham’s homeless and indigent population, Spent aims to illuminate the difficulties of poverty by exposing users to the unforeseen difficulties that ensnare even hard-working, well-meaning Americans.  (And, of course, to seek donations).

I started the month with $1,000 and took a job as a waiter.  Unfortunately, rent is pretty expensive near the restaurant, so I had to pick an apartment about 40 miles away, increasing my commute and gas bills.  As I proceeded through the month, I had to deal with local hoodlums, car troubles, student loan repayments, medical bills, and more.

Decisions, decisions

My bank account continued to decrease, to the point where I tragically had to refuse to my son’s request for ice cream. Despite cutting back, I ran out of money 19 days into the month, even though I had already decided to forego hot water.  As I made each difficult decision, pop-up messages offered statistics about the people who make these same difficult decisions every day – with much more at stake.

The game offers a view of poverty that is decidedly situationist – even users who “work hard” by finding employment and doing additional work for neighbors still run into the myriad difficulties created by the situation of poverty.  Hard work, it turns out, is not always enough to overcome rising costs of health care, gas, food, electricity, and child care.

Take the challenge and see if you can make it through the month!  And if you do, don’t celebrate yet – there’s another month ahead, surely with even more bills to pay.


4 Responses to “Experience: Poverty”

  1. Jon Hanson February 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    You did far better than I did. Initially, I applied for a clerical job but failed the typing test. Not only did I fail it, but I experienced performance anxiety when taking it, realizing that my only shot at the position was going to turn on how quickly and accurately I typed. That in mind, I typed slowly with several errors — perhaps an example of how desperation compounds.

  2. jtroxel February 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Thanks for finding this.
    I liked that the simulation included having a child. It showed the hard emotional decisions a lot of people have to make balancing the needs and wants of their children with their own well-being.

  3. Rowland Jones March 7, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Experiencing poverty . . .

    OK I understand the idea, that the experience will change one’s perception. My problem with this is that choosing ‘poverty’ is already different to having it forced upon you . . .

    Recently I read (or at least started to read) “How to live -the life of Montaigne”. It’s interesting: but essentially about how to live: how to live , that is if your background is one of wealth, a youth of excess, a marriage and a family and then what you do…. you poor thing….

    My point is :’What about the people who some or even none of those things?’

    OK I know that considering poverty and doing something about it is good and positive: having a pseudo experience is I’m afraid only that. Why not do something?

    Now If somebody want to say: OK Rowland what have I done?’ Well not very much, in the overall scale of things. BUT having the LUXURY to have a poverty experience seems somewhat self-indulgent to me . . . .

    In 1972, I hitched a lift in Turkey with two American guys who were going to India to study in an Ashram the higher levels of thought etc etc. It turned out that one of them – the owner of the Land-Rover – was the son of a senior Executive in an oil company. A someone famously once said : ‘It’s easier to drop out of the top rather than the bottom.’

    It’s easier to pretend to be poor for a month when you know that at the end of the month you won’t be. We in the middle classes are happy to fast for health reason: that’s not the same as living without food because you have to . . . ..

    • Michael Lieberman March 10, 2011 at 9:28 am #

      I absolutely agree that it’s a bit self-indulgent to have the luxury to have a poverty “experience,” but I don’t think the value comes from the “experience” per se. Given that we indeed are not actually poor, this does not (and cannot) give us the feeling of what it is actually like to live in poverty, but it still does show the many obstacles and tough choices faced by people in poverty. And even though those obstacles aren’t as serious for those of us facing them virtually, the recognition that they exist and that the poor are not simply lazy, dumb, or undeserving (and that climbing out from poverty is not as easy as ‘working harder’) is a valuable recognition for those who are inclined to view poverty dispositionally.

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