Understanding the Impact of Poverty

With hard times affecting Americans, here’s a way to see the reality of being poor.

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Millions of Americans are struggling with a new visitor to their homes: poverty. The richest nation on earth is now providing food stamps to a record 45 million people—one in seven Americans. More than 25 million people are either unemployed, working part-time when they want full-time jobs, or have simply stopped looking for work altogether. Long-term jobless benefits are scheduled to expire for millions of people at the end of this year, and there isn't much support or money in Washington to extend them.

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Prospects of job openings regularly draw thousands of applicants. When 200 dentists recently gathered in an Atlanta suburb to offer free dental care, they were overwhelmed when more than 4,000 people showed up. A common theme among those who spoke with reporters was their bewilderment that they would ever find themselves so hard up as to need free dental care.

Hard times have become entrenched in the United States, and so have many of the polarizing attitudes directed at people who are poor. Common complaints are that poor people don't pay taxes, poor people could do better but are lazy, and that poor people live on welfare instead of looking for work.

Patrice Nelson works with a lot of poor people and sees these stereotypes all the time in her work as executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD) in North Carolina. "There is a stereotype that these are people who don't care or just aren't trying," she says. "That's just not true of the people we see."

The reality of poverty is of a physically draining, soul-crushing struggle that can, and does, bring down people who used to be your next-door neighbor. "After a while," Nelson says, "you just kind of start falling. You may not get to sleep in the same bed each night. There is no place to keep or clean your clothes. You eat your meals in different places. You don't have a bathroom or supplies for personal grooming. After dealing with all of this, we'd all start to look like we'd been run through the ringer."

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In an effort to communicate this reality and improve awareness of issues around homelessness and poverty, Nelson turned to McKinney, a Durham advertising agency that had been donating its time to provide public-service ads and awareness work for UMD. "We had been working with Urban Ministries for a couple of years doing a traditional awareness campaign," says Jenny Nicholson, a McKinney copywriter who worked on the UMD account. "There was no way it was going to have the impact we wanted," she recalls. "It's very easy to do an 'us versus them' approach. That's just not very compelling these days."

"I knew I wanted to do something different," Nicholson says. In early 2010, she was struck by the rise of online social media, particularly the explosion of the FarmVille game on Facebook. People open FarmVille accounts and then select an online identity, or avatar, to interact with other FarmVille players. The goal is to become a successful farmer, and working with other players is a big part of the game.

What if a similar online tool could be developed to illuminate the reality of poverty, Nicholson wondered. Working with McKinney colleagues and people at UMD, Nicholson's idea turned into an online poverty "game" called Spent. The game challenges users to live in poverty for a month, and to see how they cope with its challenges. The key to the game's success is its real-world savvy about what poverty is really like. These experiences were provided by the people that UMD works with, as agency staffers sought out their views and feedback in developing the game.

Another key was Nicholson, whose background is a perfect hand-in-glove fit for the goals of Spent. Before joining McKinney, the 32-year-old Nicholson got a master's degree in social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked as a child therapist. More to the point of Spent, Nicholson grew up in poverty and understood all too well the negative attitudes directed at poor people.

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"I grew up not having any money," she says. "My mom was a waitress and single mom. Now I'm successful. I have a house. I have a car. And it has become very easy even for me to lose touch with what it was like before. How hard it is to be poor, and how much the system seems to conspire against you ... I knew from experience that being poor and surviving required a lot of ingenuity and a lot of hard work."

"People who have never had to live in that situation need to understand what it's like," Nicholson says. That was the goal of Spent when it was launched last February. The game features the very tough financial choices that people with meager resources are forced to make.

Do you fix the car and deprive your children of clothes for school, or do you buy them the clothes and risk losing your low-paying job if the car breaks down? Do you spend the money to fix the plumbing in your apartment when the building superintendent laughs at your request to fix it and says you can always just move out? And each week the game progresses, new bills come due and the money to pay them dwindles. At the end of the month, it is nearly impossible not to have run out of money. Which, of course, is what happens in the real world.

Spent, to say the least, has caught on. It's been played more than a million times by users in not only the United States, but 195 other countries, McKinney says. Spent has been picked up by schools as an educational tool. A major credit card company provides the game to its credit counselors and contributes financial support to Urban Ministries. (One of its funding conditions is that its identity not be disclosed.)

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"I have been very pleasantly surprised," Nelson says. "I had no concept of how a game of this type would be received, and how the Internet can affect people's perceptions. I have had phone calls from people literally all over the world, and they tell me how much it really reflected their own experience."

In particular, Nelson says, she recalls the story of a small business owner from Minnesota. When the recession began, his business started falling off, she says. He responded by investing more heavily, but conditions did not improve. "They lost their home and they lost their business," Nelson says. "He told me it felt like falling down a deep hole, and he talked about how the game struck him so powerfully because it reflected his experiences."

"What he liked about the game was that somebody understood what he was going through," she continued. The man had been too embarrassed to tell anyone else about his problems. Such shame is a common response to financial problems. "It's new, it's embarrassing, and it's not something they're used to," Nelson says. "There are people out there who need help and have not even told everyone in their family how much help they need."

Urban Ministries and McKinney are now talking about how to build on the success of Spent, and further broaden awareness of what hard times really mean to Americans. Nicholson tosses out one specific goal, not wholly in jest: "I wish we could get our Congressmen to play this game."

Twitter: @PhilMoeller