poverty simulation

An event promotion popped up in my Facebook Newsfeed – a “Poverty Simulation” was happening at the Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church on the same day as Inauguration Day. I clicked on the link and found out the event was hosted by Sunnyvale Community Services, one of Second Harvest Food Bank’s over 320 partner agencies in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

In partnership with Sunnyvale Community Services, Downtown Streets Team was facilitating the poverty simulation which was an opportunity to “begin to understand the struggles and fears  people living in poverty face everyday, by putting yourself in their shoes and making the same difficult decisions.”

As a member of the marketing and communications team at Second Harvest, I hear many stories of our clients’ challenges secondhand, from co-workers who do community outreach to stories shared on social media. As best as I could through this simulation, I wanted to feel what it’s like to really struggle to make ends meets. And, having grown up in Sunnyvale, it was also a chance to hear about the challenges facing community members in my hometown.

Despite the bad weather, the turnout was really good, with over 60 participants reported by Sunnyvale Community Services. I checked in and was assigned a new identity – more on that later. I quickly recognized a face, Marie Bernard, executive director of Sunnyvale Community Services and a Second Harvest Food Bank board member. She connected me to Tori Bers, marketing director, and I asked why the organization supports poverty simulations.

“Poverty simulations are a great way for the community to get a real sense of what it’s like to be poor in our community,” Tori Bers responded. “As a nonprofit that sees clients every day who are struggling to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, we feel it’s important for the broader community to understand and build empathy for their neighbors in need.”


Households in the community

The center of the gymnasium at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church represented a community. There were little circles of chairs representing neighborhoods and each circle had a packet of information created by Missouri Community Action Network. On the periphery of the community, tables with signs on them represented various institutions, such as social services, a grocery store, a bank, a health clinic, and a public school.

my persona

My new identity

I found the members of my new family, a man from Downtown Streets Team, as well as a man and woman from Leadership Sunnyvale. That’s who they really were. But once we got the green light to review the contents of the packet, we found out our new identities and household set-up. Here’s some of the key information about our household:

Nattin/Netter Household Members:

  • Father: Nolan, age 36, employed full-time at the General Employer. Works 40 hours/week which includes some weekends and holiday work.
  • Mother: Nancy, age 36, currently unemployed. <— that’s me!
  • Daughter: Nola, age 15, in high school. Active in sports and works part time at the super center when school is not in session.
  • Father-in-Law: Ned, age 57, had a mild stroke that has left him with partial paralysis

Living Situation: three-bedroom house that still has a mortgage; 2 cars (one paid for, one on loan)

Income: Father works 40 hours/week making $8.50/hour – $1,241/month after taxes. Family receives $210/month in food stamps. Father-in-law receives $330 in disability.

Monthly Expenses:

  • Housing – $660
  • Utilities – $275
  • Food – $110
  • Clothing – $60
  • Automobile Loan – $200
  • Miscellaneous Expenses (includes prescriptions) – $170
reviewing packet

Our household assets

We laid out the contents of our packet, reviewing our various assets, including transportation passes and household goods and appliances.

After everyone had settled into their new identities, the event hosts began explaining what was about to happen over the next hour. We were going to experience living in poverty in Santa Clara County for a month. Each week was represented by 15 minutes. We’d have “weekends” with our family to figure out our plan for the next week. And then the poverty simulation officially started with the bang of a cowbell.

setting the stage

During the first week, my family immediately reserved transportation passes for Nolan, our only fully employed household member. My daughter Nola left for school. Ned and I focused on getting more transportation passes and groceries. My assignment was to go to the superstore and get groceries using our food stamp benefits. For various reasons, including long lines and slow service, I left the superstore with no food. When I got home, I learned that Nola had been expelled from school. Over the weekend, the family decided that she should get a part-time job at the superstore.

During the second week, Nolan went to work, Ned ran errands (he went to pawn shop to try and sell some of our assets), and both Nola and I headed to the superstore immediately, to secure a part-time job and food for the week, respectively. When I returned home, I got a notice to go to social services during this week so they could check on our continued eligibility for CalFresh benefits. I waited in line and did not get to see case worker before closing time. During the weekend, I shared with the family that I was uncertain about our ability to afford food next month. On the income front, we had paychecks from Nolan and Nola, and Ned was able to sell only a few of our items. We finally had enough to pay for the mortgage and utilities this month.

So the main task for the third week was to pay for those major expenses – mortgage and utilities. Nolan and Nola went to work and Ned stayed home. During the trip for this week’s groceries, I used up the rest of our food stamp benefits and had to pay the remaining balance out-of-pocket. That weekend, we discussed how we were going to pay for groceries the following week and we decided we would finally get the flu shots that we were required to get that month.

So for our fourth and final week, once we got groceries out of the way (using our cash), we finally went to the health clinic to get our flu shots(except Nolan couldn’t joint us since he was at work). For reasons beyond our control, the clinic closed before we could actually get our shots. We also found out that Ned, my father-in-law, needed to get physical therapy – another expense to contend with next month.

In the end, we were able to cover almost all our expenses for the month, but our ability to do the same the following month was definitely questionable. We got into groups to talk about the situations we encountered and what it felt like. Many of us shared the same frustrations and stress trying to make it through the month.

waiting in line

Always waiting in line

These were my three biggest takeaways about the challenges facing people living in poverty:

  • Managing Costs and Making Difficult Choices: Our household expenses were always front of mind every start of the week – what they were, how we’re going to pay for them, and when they really had to be paid by. I was initially happy that my daughter Nola could get a part-time job, but the fact that she was losing out on having an education that could get her in a better place in the future began weighing on my mind. I myself needed to get a job, but during that month, I couldn’t find the time to look for opportunities.
  • Not Enough Time – From the very beginning of this poverty simulation exercise, I underestimated how long it would take to get seemingly simple errands done. The facilitators informed us that for people living in poverty, it can take 3-4 times longer to get somewhere. Wait times at the various services were long and I often left without completing the task at hand. I felt like I had no control of the situation and was constantly frustrated. I was grateful to have my father-in-law Ned help out with errands, but given his partial paralysis, it was probably far from realistic to assume he could be so active.
  • The Importance of Transportation – Every task required going somewhere. Our family was lucky to have two working cars. Some of our neighbors received notices that their cars had broken down and needed major repairs. Having multiple transportation passes (which also covered gas expenses) was critical. At one point, the shop selling transportation passes had run out of them and when that happened, we were unable to run errands for the rest of the week.

Katie Ferrick, Director of Community Relations at LinkedIn and a board member of Sunnyvale Community Services, was also at the event and shared her experience, stating, “This should be a required exercise for all policy makers who determine funding for social safety net services. Despite knowing I would walk out of there and return to my ‘real’ life, this experience will stay with me for a long time.”

downtown streets team

At the end of the event, various members of the Downtown Streets Team – most of them former and currently homeless – shared what they hoped participants would get from the poverty simulation. Many of them urged us to always remember that homeless people are people too and that simple acknowledgement, like simply saying ‘hi,’ can go a really long way in showing that you care.

collage from downtown streets team

Collage created by Downtown Streets Team

Again, what participants experienced that day was only a simulation – it gave many of us an opportunity to just begin to understand what it’s like to live check-to-check. It certainly gave me a better perspective of why there are still so many struggling in Silicon Valley despite the booming economy.

Thanks to Sunnyvale Community Services and Downtown Streets Team for hosting this eye-opening, unforgettable event!

Read more about the event in this Sunnyvale Sun article.