(Editor’s Note: This blog was written especially for the Humanity Project by Bob LaMendola, treasurer of the Humanity Project Board of Directors. Mr. LaMendola is a former journalist who specialized in health stories. He now is in Community Affairs at the Florida Department of Health in Broward County.)
I have gone through my whole life thinking I’m pretty good at handling money. But now I have tasted crow. A mere three hours of pretending to survive on a subsistence paycheck showed me and 67 other middle-class people the incredible difficulties of living without means. This eye-opening and humbling experience was a poverty simulation sponsored by the Children’s Services Council of Broward County and the University of Florida. It’s an exercise that every elected official should undergo. If they did, they may not be so quick to cut social services when times get tight.
Each person at the exercise was assigned to play a character with a life story spelled out. Then over the three hours, we all tried to get through a month of paying bills and keeping ourselves fed. Spoiler alert – my family had no food for a while, and we ended up getting evicted. I played a 52-year-old woman with limited English who was making about $12 an hour working a steady job. My disabled “husband” could not work, so he stayed home taking care of our school-age granddaughter and grandson, the boy with attention deficit disorder.
Now in real life, I’m the kind of guy who pays the bills on time and in full, and would rather stash money in the bank than buy myself the latest electronic device or new shoes. I figured I could stretch even a small household budget, no prob. In the simulation, it was a struggle catching the bus to work so my husband could use the car to run errands and manage the kids, who would have been a handful even for Bill Cosby. Our first week, we let the rent go and spent the paycheck on a car payment and another bill. Plenty of month left for rent. We felt like we were getting by. In the second week, we got a notice telling us we had not bought groceries and the kids had no food. What the .. ? How did that happen? My husband had paid utilities but never made it to the market. I was always working when the store was open. Jeez, we had been neglectful. But we were doing better than some others around us. One family was so short of money, they happily kept some cash the neighbor dropped on the ground. Others pawned appliances. The third week, we got a kick in the gut. The car broke down. We had no transportation vouchers left, so I couldn’t get to work. I told myself I would have called the boss and explained my absence, so we spent our money getting the car fixed. Now we were up against it on the rent. Our next check had to go to the bank. But when I showed up for work on Monday of the final week, I was in deep ca-ca. The boss said she never heard from me when I missed work, and had been told by her boss to cut the staff. I was it. I tried to explain, but remember, my English is not so good and it was too late. Fired!
I rallied my husband to drag the kids to get some social services, and through the kindness of a social agency, I found another job. But when we all dragged ourselves home at the end of the day, we had been put out of our home. The exercise was over. We had failed to make ends meet. We had spent virtually no quality time with the kids. Our entire existence was spent in the rat race of keeping heads above water. The majority of the other participants in the simulation – mostly workers or volunteers from non-profit groups and government agencies – had failed in some ways, too. A few succumbed to drugs or wound up on the street. One family committed robbery. Others said they would have had sex with someone for money, if they had been given the chance. Granted, this exercise was just a simulation, and it was set up to put us under time constraints much worse than in real life. Nonetheless, in the end, every person left that room humbled by the difficulty of the daily grind when there’s no money to oil the machine. We all learned something.
More information: Children’s Services Council of Broward County, www.cscbroward.org or 954-377-1000.