The Poverty Simulation Game: Can You Survive For A Month In Poverty?

11-8-2013 9-09-05 AM

You’ve lost your job. After a couple of months of unemployment, your savings are depleted. You’ve lost your house, or you’re about to. You’re a single parent. You have $1,000 ?to your name.?

Can you make it through the month?

That’s the question asked at An online poverty simulation game, PlaySpent walks you through the tough choices that unemployed people have to make. You need a job quickly when you become unemployed because Unemployment Benefits are only about $400-ish per month, depending on your state and assuming you qualify for maximum benefits. The quickest way to become employed is to take a job such as a restaurant server or find temp work. These are your choices in the game.?Once you choose your new occupation, you are walked through some really tough choices, none of which have fabulous consequences.

Want to walk through my choices with me and see how my children and I would fare? Some of this stuff doesn’t apply to me. For example, we live simply by choice and don’t have a house or car payment (thank God and my wonderful father, who helped me secure a home that I never have to worry about losing). But driving two older vehicles, I do have frequent car repairs, some?of them expensive. It’s still cheaper than paying a monthly payment, though, so it’s worth it.

Also, I live in a very old home. Something is always needing repairs. With winter coming on, I’m particularly stressed. Will ice cause a tree to fall on my driveway, or worse, on my roof? Will a pipe burst from freezing? Will I be able to afford to keep the propane tank full (it’s more expensive than you think)?

I’ll do my best. It’s all I’ve ever been able to do. As a single mom for years, we’ve struggled through hard times. I’ve faced many of the scenarios I detail below. Those I haven’t faced, I’ve seen other people struggle with. So this is a work of fiction mostly, you could say, but any of this is feasible and you could also say it’s “based on a true story.”

Let’s do this. Deep breath….let’s roll.

Getting a job

Upon starting the “game,” the first thing I’m faced with is logistics — finding a job, securing housing, etc…the job comes first.


I chose the temp work, which required me to pass a typing test. My skills are best suited for that. Also, I’m 46 years old and in average condition. I’ve torn ACL ligaments in both knees over the years. Can I withstand the rigors of being a restaurant server or warehouse worker? Not sure. Let’s do the temp job for now.?

11-8-2013 9-16-27 AM

Yay me! My confidence got a boost from passing the typing test. I’m then faced with my health insurance options. Are you kidding me? I can’t afford health insurance with this salary. Opt out and call the Obamacare phone operators! Thank goodness for Obamacare.

11-8-2013 9-17-45 AM

Securing housing after losing your home

Now I have to find a place to live. Do I choose to live outside the city where quality of life is better, or near work where it’s much more expensive. The interactive calculator shows what your options (assuming you have options) cost. I like country living. Note that as I go through this activity, I have my balance displayed at the top left, and my expenditures and days listed on the right.

11-8-2013 9-20-29 AM

11-8-2013 9-22-05 AM


Getting rid of beloved possessions

Next, I have to downsize because my new home is smaller than the house I can no longer afford to keep.

11-8-2013 9-27-22 AM

I do have lots of stuff. Where will I store my books? I could sell them, at a yard sale. I could ask a friend to store them. No one is excited about storing my 4,000 books, and anyhow, I’ve been having back problems so moving them would be a daunting task by itself. As bad as I hate this, I have no other option but to have a yard sale to get rid of them. Unfortunately, they’re the main source of enjoyment and enrichment for my kids and me, but oh well. Maybe I’ll have gas to go to the library. The good thing is, I’ll have a little cash from the sale.

11-8-2013 9-28-00 AM

Guess my books aren’t worth much to anyone but me! I didn’t make much, but every little bit helps. I’m going to remain optimistic.

Missing work

11-8-2013 9-28-47 AM

And….good thing I sold my books. A slow sense of desperation sets in as I see that my balance has dropped to $370.

The ultimate sacrifices

11-8-2013 9-29-55 AM

Now I’m faced with a tough choice. I desperately need the money, but there are a couple of issues: my back problems (no insurance yet, and forget paying for a doctor) and my kid’s play. She’s been so excited about it, and since I had three days of no work this week, I had the rare opportunity of volunteering with making costumes at her school.

I have to find a way to explain to her that I’ll miss the play but “be there in spirit.” Sadly, her Dad can’t be counted on to show up, so she’ll have no one in the audience. When I tell her, the disappointment in her eyes makes me feel almost physically ill. Then I see her quickly put on her brave face and she says “Mom, it’s OK. That play’s no big deal.”?This makes me feel even more ill, because I know it’s not true.

When she goes to bed, I can hear her crying. The next day, I hear her telling the same lie to a couple of her friends: “My mom won’t be there and I’m totally cool with that. This dumb play is no big deal to me.” I ask myself the question: “At some point, will she finally convince herself that things like the play are no big deal to her?” The consequences of that frighten me.

At church, I tell one of the other parents that I won’t be there and that “I have to help a friend move.” I can see in their eyes that they think I’m a horrible mom. I actually suddenly start to feel like a horrible mom.

11-8-2013 9-32-36 AM

?Ethics and Desperation

11-8-2013 9-36-43 AM

When I’m out job-searching, I see a lady drop a $10 bill. I’m an honest person. I’ve never taken anything from anyone. I’m terrified by what I’m suddenly feeling: a crazy sense of excitement knowing what I could buy with that $10. Groceries? Pain relief pills so that my back won’t hurt when I’m helping my neighbor with her move? I glance at the lady’s nice purse….her perfectly manicured nails. I reach down and pick up the $10 bill and try to catch her. Just at that moment, I see her getting into a car and driving off. I’m relieved and buy Aleve at the pharmacy on my way home. I splurge and buy the kids each a candy bar. That evening, the guilt consumes me. I could have flagged her down. A few drinks dull the pain somewhat.

Logistics: Internet for job search

11-8-2013 9-41-07 AM

A job search is hard in these times of technology if you don’t have internet. I really can’t afford it right now. The kids are suffering without it and are having to go to school early every day to use the school’s computers to do their projects. But it’s just not something we can afford. I’ll go without and use the library’s computers this month. I’ll try to get our internet turned back on next month. I’ll have to pay the re-connection fees, of course, and make up the past-due balance.

Vehicle expenses seem like one of the heaviest burdens

11-8-2013 10-11-00 AM

Oh wow. This? OMG. It seems like just yesterday that I was paying last year’s registration and inspection. I can’t do this. If I do, I can’t get through the month financially. I’ll take my chances and pray about it. If I get a ticket, of course, it will be a nightmare. I will also not be able to pay that. I’ll then have a warrant for my arrest. And…etc…

The little things become big things

11-8-2013 10-14-57 AM

Laundry day. Again. I go to my parents. Again. I see the disapproval in their eyes. Again. I had a washer and dryer, but the washer began to quit agitating properly. The dryer quit working and I can’t afford a repair. I’ll suck it up and go and get the laundry done.

Deciding which bills to pay when you can’t pay them all

11-8-2013 10-12-45 AM

Which bills do I pay? Asking a friend is out of the question. I do have some pride left. I have to pay the phone bill. If I don’t have a phone, I can’t receive calls about work. What if I have an accident? Will I be able to fix my car? The other person’s car if it’s my fault? Also, if I get a ticket for not having insurance, I could lose my license. I can’t think about it. I just can’t.

Disappointing friends because you’re broke

11-8-2013 9-45-29 AM

My oldest and dearest friend and an out of state wedding? There’s no way I can do this. I opt out and tell her that I’m so busy with job search and kid activities that I can’t make it. I then admit that I really can’t afford it anyhow. She’s supportive, and I hear empathy and disappointment in her voice. I’m disappointing everyone, it seems.

?The ultimate shame and heartache

11-8-2013 10-18-02 AM

And a week later, my beloved grandfather dies. And I can’t go. I know he would understand. Unfortunately, my family doesn’t. “Irresponsible.” “Loser.” “Got laid off, not her fault, but she should have been more prepared.” I can hear all of this racing through my mind.I have a couple of drinks that night and cry quietly in bed. Grandfather would understand. I know this and take comfort in it.

The weaknesses caused by stress

11-8-2013 10-15-56 AM

“A puff away from a pack a day.” Screw it. Yeah, give me a cigarette. It’s just one…I instantly regret it because I know if I start smoking again, it will suck up all of my money. I’ll pray about it. I put the cigarette out and pull myself together.

11-8-2013 10-16-42 AM


Unacceptable but necessary solutions

11-8-2013 9-46-05 AM

When a friend of a friend offers me $200 to camp out in my living room, I feel exactly as I felt when picking up that $10. I don’t want to do it but feel that to say no would be irresponsible of me. I worry about the situation. I mean, I have kids, you know? And how well do I know this person? Will he steal from us? I’m going to do it. I’ll pray about it and hope for the best.

All work and no play…

11-8-2013 9-50-01 AM

Entertainment for me? No. It’s easier for me to pretend that being home is more fun to me. No way can I afford this.

Watching the humiliation of your children

11-8-2013 9-50-35 AM

The truth is, in the free lunch scenario, I’d expect my kids to “suck it up.” Life is hard and the alternatives aren’t an option. But it can be worse than that. I later find out that they choose to not eat at school. My teenager pretends that she’s dieting and my grade-schooler tells his friends he’d rather starve than eat that nasty food. When I find out, I cry myself to sleep that night. I vow to come up with the money somehow.

The unexpected

11-8-2013 9-53-37 AM

Wow. Really? This is unlikely to happen to me where I live, but another reality is definitely a worry: flat tire, dead battery, or even not having enough gas to get to town. The best option for me would be to call in sick. Buses don’t come here and it’s too far from the city to ask my friends to help.

11-8-2013 9-55-26 AM

Yes, it would have. Unfortunately, I had no choice. I Had No Choice.

Student loans

11-8-2013 9-56-17 AM

I want to pay my student loans, but I have no choice. I begin to regret finishing my degree. I can’t pay this. It would take nearly half of the money I have left and we’re already halfway through the month. I’ll pay in interest ?and late fees later, of course, but for now, food and shelter is more urgent. To make things worse, I just learned that Congress has voted to raise interest on student loans. The despair I feel is almost crippling. No hope.

Disappointing your kids

11-8-2013 10-20-19 AM

After missing the play, and the free lunch fiasco, how can I say no to this? Sports and the team-building activities are important. Equally important is keeping kids busy in positive activities. I have to do this for my son. Even if it means not paying my phone bill next money. I shell out the $50. I worry about kids who can’t afford this (as if we can!) and I think about the kids in the at-risk you programs I used to manage. I know that those who had access to positive activities were far less likely to get into trouble.

Grocery expenses

The kids are grumpy and telling me there’s “nothing good to eat” in the house. That’s true. We do have some meat in the freezer and some canned veggies, but they’re having to prepare some of their own meals because I’m working when they get home and sometimes on the weekends. I don’t really feel comfortable with my youngest child using the stove and it’s hard to prepare a meal from scratch using the microwave. I’ll go to the store and try to buy some affordable and healthy quick foods. Ramen noodles! They love those. Zero nutritional benefits, but they fill the tummy and they taste good.

Here is what I have in my buggy at the grocery store:

  • Ramen noodles – ?4 pack
  • Orange juice – 1 gallon
  • 3 lb. bag of chicken
  • 3 cans of beans to go with the chicken dinner
  • Fish sticks – easy for them to cook on their own if I’m at work
  • Eggs, milk, and cereal. I’m usually working at breakfast-time so this is important now that we’re not doing free lunches and breakfasts anymore. I can make boiled eggs and leave them in the fridge for them.
  • Baby carrots and apples. Good for quick, healthy snacking.
  • Bread and peanut butter. They can take a lunch most days, and supplement it with the carrots and apples. Perfect!

As I realize I’ve reached my spending limit of $40, I suddenly remember that we’re almost out of toilet paper. Ugh. I put back the orange juice and add a few packs of unhealthy Kool Aid. Yes, I’ll be criticized by family members for giving my kids junk to drink, but oh well. Screw them.

Accidents happen

11-8-2013 10-22-14 AM

OK now what? I don’t even have $550 left and I didn’t pay my insurance, remember? So I drive a beat-up car now. Hope my potential employers don’t come out and see my car and think I’m white trash. And the kids will be embarrassed. They’re having to learn a few too many life lessons for my comfort. But it is what it is.

When it rains it pours…

11-8-2013 10-25-34 AM

What’s wrong with my car now??? I just got paid, but I still only have $633 to get through another two weeks. $300 to fix or ask a friend for help? I think the church has a special program with some mechanics who volunteer. I’m relieved to see that they can help me. I still have to buy the parts ($100) but at least I have help with repairs. A blessing.

When working costs you money

11-8-2013 10-33-11 AM

I feel like I’m going to cry. The cost of this vase is as much as I make in nearly three hours of work. I have to pay for it. I can’t risk getting fired. Besides, the memory of that $10 bill makes my cheeks burn with shame. However, I’m beginning to understand all too well what motivates struggling people to make choices that are dishonest.

Home repairs become a nightmare

11-8-2013 10-27-56 AM

And….bring on the rain. I actually have my own home, so no landlord. Ha. I have to fix it myself. I can’t afford a plumber. I try to fix it and mess it up worse. The YouTube DIY video was even too complex for me to follow. I can’t ask my parents for help. I know I’ll see and hear disapproval from them. Not that they’re not glad to help (I guess) but that they’re so disappointed in me. Again. I call my handyman, buy the parts, and he fixes it for me.

Collection calls

11-8-2013 10-34-45 AM

I have to pay ?this. If the car gets repossessed, we’re sunk. It’s that simple.

Living with pain because of lack of money

11-8-2013 10-35-26 AM

Please. Dental work? hahahahaha! Even Obamacare doesn’t offer dental care. As I spend money on the numbing gel ($5), I begin to worry about worse-case scenarios. What if I actually lose a tooth? Will I be able to find work if I’m snaggle-toothed? And for sure, I’ll look like white trash! I’ll pray about it.


11-8-2013 10-37-02 AM

Our pet is a member of our family. I can’t do this. No friends can take my dog. And he’s a “mutt” so I know at the shelter he’ll be euthanized. My kids have already been through too much hell in one month than some kids have to go through in a lifetime. It’s the 24th of the month. I’m going to pay this. And pray. I just got paid, so it may be OK.

Bettering oneself

11-8-2013 10-38-53 AM

I really want to do this. The temp agency told me if I learn how to use Excel at the expert level, I can get jobs paying $3 more per hour. It’s the 24th. I have $359 left. I’m going to take a chance and take this class.

Public assistance

11-8-2013 10-32-16 AM

A friend suggests that I definitely qualify for SNAP.?Food stamps? Never. God forbid anyone find out. I’d rather starve.

Lost opportunities for children

11-8-2013 10-42-47 AM

This is so important to him. I have to make it happen. I never dreamed that my child’s future success would be determined by small choices like this. I’m not great at math, but I’ll try and I’ll ask my friend to help. I feel blessed that I have the $50. I worry that many children do not.

Wearing used clothing

11-8-2013 10-43-58 AM

I take the coat. Are you kidding me? Of course I do. All pride is gone, and anyhow, it’s way nicer than the one I have and I’m grateful. I tell my friend she’s a blessing from God to me.

We did it!


We made it. We made it! It was painful. This has been the worst month of our lives. We feel blessed that we have what we have. Rent’s due tomorrow? Maybe they’ll let me be a little late. The kids and I splurge and drive through McDonalds, ordering off the dollar menu. Their bliss as I watch them enjoy their ice cream is both heartbreaking and rewarding — seeing how grateful they are with the simplest things.

Hope and dreams. Sometimes I feel that it’s all we have left and that it’s only a matter of time before someone takes those from us. But for now, we huddle together. We’re a team. We can do this.

Here is what I know: I did my best. I made the most responsible choices I could make most of the time. Could you have done better?


Did you make it through the month? What surprised you the most? Sound off in the comments. Take the challenge at?

Tiffany Willis Clark is a fifth-generation Texan and the founder and editor-in-chief of Liberal America and An unapologetic member of the Christian Left, she had a long and successful career actively working with at-risk youth, people struggling with poverty and unemployment, and disadvantaged and oppressed populations. She’s passionate about their struggles. In 2011, she made the decision to pursue her dreams and become a full-time writer. Connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page.