Two years ago, over my husband’s objections, we became a one-vehicle household when I sold my car.
It was a financial decision, in part. I had recently downsized out of management and was earning significantly less. But it was also a lifestyle choice. After years of long-distance commuting, I re-established our household in a bus- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where I can walk to work.
Choice is the operative word in that scenario. When I observe that I’m among the few obviously professional workers — and Caucasians — on inner-city buses or trains, I don’t often acknowledge that for me this is a choice. Even the pay cut, though a blow to both my pocketbook and my ego, was made possible through income from rental properties that my family owns.
For the working poor, however, a reliance on sometimes unreliable mass transit — as well as food insecurity, substandard housing, or lack of affordable child care and health care — means the opposite of choice. “It is about economics,” says Gennae Falconer, director of community engagement at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.
“I have a full-time job,” she explains. “I have parents who could bail me out. Without harm to them, they could support me. These families have grandparents who can’t watch the kids because they are working. It’s inter-generational poverty.”
An exercise in living poor
I recently had the opportunity through Leadership Saint Paul to be part of a workshop that Falconer runs called “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty.” Although the exercise has the feel of a board game, there is nothing enjoyable about it at all.
Your challenge is to make it through a month in the city on a very limited budget, the instructions read. You will need to find housing, daycare, transportation and health insurance. In addition, you will need to pay for household expenses, food, clothing and entertainment.
My team’s choices got more difficult as we inched closer and closer to spending down the $3,400 per month that “Ted” and “Alice,” our working-poor parents, brought home. We started with housing, which we deemed the highest need for this five-person family.
Affordable housing means you are spending less than 30% on housing costs. In 2015, over 37% of Hennepin County residents paid more than 30% of their income for housing.
Given choices that included an affordable “rundown quad-plex” on a busy street where “loud fights and crime are common” and “a spacious duplex” close to a park and bus lines that cost $280 a month more than we were supposed to spend on housing, we opted for the three-bedroom duplex. Our rationale: free entertainment in the park.
We chose not to give this family a car, which meant we had to find daycare for the 2- and the 4-year-old on a bus line or close to home. Our decisions were starting to involve compromise:
- The most affordable, high-quality child-care option, with a curriculum that focuses on healthful eating and self-esteem, looked ideal — but was a 40-minute commute by bus.
- The other affordable option had a “frazzled and forgetful” owner who also cares for her aging mother. Plus, a child was injured there recently in the home’s unfinished basement.
- The pricier option had a “sparse” supply of toys and limited activities, and it cost $160 a month more (remember, we already had overspent on housing, and we hadn’t yet factored in clothing and food).
“As you go into the exercise, you start to physically feel some of the stress,” Falconer says. “Sometimes, the only financial choice is to have the neighbor who smokes all day watch the kids, even though she lets them watch too much TV. As a society, we vilify the parents who will do that. But this is the best choice available.”
In the end, our family had spent $750 more than its monthly budget. The choices we made — to buy health insurance for the children, to enroll the mother in her 401(k) plan at work, to buy a share in the neighborhood community garden — reflected the circumstances in which we all were raised.
“Early on, there’s often not a lot of discussion about these choices,” says Falconer. “Participants are working on what is culturally ingrained: ‘This is what you do. This is how people live.’”
How could we deny “Alice,” the mom, the chance to attend her father’s funeral in Chicago? (None of us on the team works in an hourly-wage job where such a choice would entail lost wages.) How could we keep Valerie, the eldest child, from playing a sport or taking a field trip at school? (None of us had been denied those opportunities.)
Days later, Falconer and I discussed how she has seen the exercise affect participants.
This exercise was billed to our group as a “poverty simulation.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
“We try not to call it a poverty simulation, because that’s not fair to those who experience real poverty. We call it by its full name — Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty — and we define it as a simulation exercise to experience what life is like for the working poor.
“The exercise is specific to that group of people. They don’t make enough to cover living expenses, but they earn too much to qualify for state and federal aid.”
Who is your audience?
“We’re largely working with people who come from a privileged background and may not understand the complexities. They may believe that poverty is a choice driven by the person experiencing it. We’re hoping to show people that poverty is driven by economics.
“That’s why we call these poverty and privilege trainings. In our experience of working with white, middle- to upper-middle-class people — and I am one of them — we see that people tend to feel either guilty or defensive. And that doesn’t get us anywhere. We can’t sit in that space.
“If people act out of guilt, they give money. That’s fine, but it’s not working toward justice. If you act out of defensiveness, you become fearful and want to hold on to what you have.”
I’m on a committee at work that is examining how to move from employee volunteerism to true engagement with the community. How do you move people from throwing money at the problem to changing the system that enables poverty?
“People gravitate toward service and acts of charity because it’s on their terms. You get to decide how you do it, and it’s easier to do. Yes, you did something good: You painted a house; you stocked a food shelf.
“But if you’re doing the work of justice, it is going to take some personal sacrifice. You may make less money, because if we’re going to pay everyone an equitable wage, then the person who is white or male won’t automatically make more money. The sacrifice will come from those who have the most.
“That’s hard, and it creates fear. People think, ‘I’m going to be without.’ We live with such a notion of scarcity: ‘If we pay people more, I will have less.’ But we have enough in this country. We just don’t allocate it right. We don’t share enough.
“There has to be give and take among all community members to bring everybody up. Paul Wellstone said: We all do better when we all do better. Goodness begets other goodness.”
Although my team wanted to do well by this family, we also concluded that with low-skilled jobs and no apparent education, the parents should never have had children — or at least had fewer children. There’s another judgment against the working poor.
“You see that as the exercise progresses. Ted smokes, and for $75 he can keep smoking that month, or for $175 he can get the cessation gum. People assume you can just quit. But less than 1 percent of people who quit smoking cold turkey are successful within the year.
“There’s a mental health factor for the working poor. Smoking or eating junk food gives you a release. They don’t have time to sit in a therapist’s office for an hour. Again, poverty is about dollars and economics. It’s not just choices people make.”
It seems that people have grown both more rich and more poor since I was a kid. My family had one television and one car until I was 10 years old. Our house had no air conditioning; my mom hung laundry outside to dry. And my father was an attorney. We considered ourselves middle class.
“And we saw the privileges of the middle class as our right! I grew up in St. Cloud. I knew people at my school who were poor. You heard rumors. You could tell by the way they dressed. But all of those people had houses, had food, had a way to get to school. That’s not the way things are anymore.
“When homeless shelters came about in the 1980s, they were supposed to be a temporary fix. Federal poverty guidelines determine whether a person or a family is eligible for benefits, but those benefits were meant to be an emergency stopgap. Because the disparity between the rich and the poor keeps growing, it takes an enormous amount of money to raise yourself into a higher class. You remain dependent on the system.”
What are the next steps, for those of us who participated in this exercise?
“Our Urban Immersion Service Retreats focus on education, advocacy and service. Those programs help all of us understand that people who want to help — to be part of equity and change — can’t just ‘jump to justice’ without the underlying background. We have to move people along that continuum.”
To learn more, or to lease the “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty” kit, contact Gennae Falconer at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches: 612-276-1564 or firstname.lastname@example.org.