For all the ills of social media, occasionally something worthwhile appears in my feed. A teacher I have known for many years posted about some training in which she’s engaged. As a part of the training, she was asked to play an online game called Spent. You can find it at www.playspent.org.
Spent is designed to help players get a sense of what it is like to be poor in America. The game was designed by McKinney, a prominent advertising firm with clients like Popeye’s and the NFL, in partnership with Urban Ministries of Durham.
The scenario is that you have lost your job, and you are down to your last $1,000. The object of the game is to provide for your family for 30 days without exhausting all your funds. The game provides opportunities to earn money, as well as options for shaving expenses, but players also must address realistic needs to remain in the game.
I played the game twice.
The first time I lasted for 23 days, but if it was my life, I would have starved. The small number of groceries I purchased would have allowed me to eat only once per day. The second time, I assumed wisdom gained in the first round would have given me an advantage, but the game ended for me after 17 days.
In both iterations, I had the choice to work as an admin with a temp agency, a warehouse worker packing and lifting boxes, or as wait staff in a casual restaurant. These are essentially the same low-paying, unreliable choices the poor in Memphis have.
Next, I needed a place to live.
The rent for a tiny apartment 50 miles away was $600 per month, but travel expenses were $160. To live in town, rent skyrocketed to $850 per month with travel expenses of only $5, but remember I only had a thousand to spend.
Not unlike the game, the average size for a two bedroom apartment in Orange Mound is 836 square feet and the rent is $703 per mo. Whether the location has standard appliances like a stove and refrigerator is a roll of the dice. In the game, I had to sell many of my belongings because they wouldn’t fit in my tiny apartment. I made $150.
With $360 to spend and only 5 days into the month, my pet became very ill. Medicine would have cured it, but I couldn’t afford it if I wanted to eat. I made the gut-wrenching choice to put my pet to sleep for only $50. Medicine would have cost $400.
The second time I played, my grandfather passed away – the loss of a family member is something we all experience and can’t usually anticipate. The difference in the game and my actual situation is that in the game, I had to choose between flying to the funeral for $350, driving for $75, or missing the funeral. I chose to drive, bringing my funds down to $286, and it was only the 6th day of the month.
If you have followed the happenings at My Cup of Tea for any length of time, you know we have experienced more than our share of death. Many of the ladies have been in the even more difficult position of being responsible for funeral expenses but unable to pay them.
Each time I played I was met with a $250 bill with an immediate due date. My options? Pay it and leave myself with only $36 for the remainder of the month or ignore and hope to be able to catch it up later. This has been a common scenario among the women we serve and a primary reason we maintain an emergency fund. I chose to ignore the bill as poor women in our community often must do, which digs the debt hole deeper and destroys personal credit.
Things aren’t all bad, though. Someone gave me a hand-me-down coat to replace the tattered one I was wearing. I have also been invited to a free concert with friends. The problem is that I have a child and will need to pay a sitter at least $30. Since it is only the eighth day of the month, I decided to stay home. Opportunities for the poor in our community to socialize and enjoy activities - something we all need to lower stress and for stronger mental health - are cost prohibitive.
In both attempts at Spent, my car broke down. Low income people cite lack of reliable transportation as a primary impediment to improving their financial situation. At My Cup of Tea, it is an almost weekly occurrence for someone to be unable to make it to work because of a car problem or lack of any transportation to get there. Our emergency fund has paid for countless car parts, mechanic fees, and tires.
With less than $200, I had to buy groceries. There were 15 days left in the month and more bills to pay, so I made careful but not healthy choices. I bought fish sticks, peanut butter, and beans for protein, instead of chicken. Ramen noodles and powdered drink mix helped me stretch. I bought eggs, milk, and bread, too. My child ate breakfast and lunch at school, but I was only able to eat about once per day. Food insecurity is a legitimate threat to the low income and the main reason we provide lunch daily at My Cup of Tea with the generous support of volunteers.
We’ve written often in this blog and elsewhere about the plight of low income women in Orange Mound. What we have shared is not exclusive to Orange Mound. If you didn’t know we were writing about our neighborhood, the anecdotes could have occurred in South or North Memphis, Binghampton, Frayser, Springdale, and numerous other communities inside the City. Spent provides a miniscule taste of the chaos faced by those living in poverty and the poor list of “solutions” available to address the barrage of crises. Unlike the My Cup of Tea ladies and thousands in our community like them, if the Spent scenario becomes too difficult, we can ex out.