For three hours last Sunday, I was a 36-year-old man named Kris Knowles who lived in Missouri. I worked a dead-end job for minimum wage. I had an unemployed wife named Kaitlin, a disabled mother and a teenage daughter who could not hold down a part-time job. I was poor. And along with being poor I became increasingly overwhelmed, angry and humiliated. I waited in line a lot for various services. And when I made it to the front of a line the folks who were supposedly there to help me were not all that kind. It was a typical day in a long month of scrimping and clawing to survive paycheck-to-paycheck.
This simulation was not a game and there were no winners. It was the Combined Jewish Philanthropy’s Poverty Simulation—a pointed exercise in empathy in which my fellow participants and I struggled with the taxing reality of keeping the Knowles family afloat. To my surprise, the particulars of the simulation effectively mimicked an actual life of poverty.
Various tables were set up in the room to represent a bank, Kris’ place of employment, a check-cashing establishment that charged Kris a high percentage when he couldn’t get to the bank, or it was closed, a social services office, a center to collect utilities and pay the mortgage and a table tucked away in the corner of the room to get emergency vouchers when cash was short.
Things started to fall apart for the Knowles family shortly after the simulator began. The family barely lived from paycheck-to-paycheck and as the breadwinner in the family, I needed to work without interruption. During the first week—a period that for purposes of the simulation lasted 15 minutes—I was harshly turned away from work for tardiness. My lateness was compounded by the fact that I needed to take out a cash advance to pay for transportation.
Missing a paycheck for that week meant that the Knowles family would soon be drowning in debt. We netted approximately $1200 a month after taxes, and after our basics were paid we had just $336 left over. That was all the money we had for extras and even more alarmingly, emergencies.
As a member of the Knowles family, I quickly discovered there is no margin for error when you’re poor. Week two we had to decide between buying groceries and paying our utilities. Looming on the horizon was our mortgage, a car payment, purchasing prescriptions for my mother and charges for transportation vouchers. We were soon notified that our electricity and gas would be turned off. I was frustrated with Kaitlin who seemed to get little to nothing done while I was at my job. To keep the lights on she pawned some jewelry and the family stereo. All that did was increase our deprivation and spike our level of anxiety about whether or not we would end up in a homeless shelter.
In the meantime, our daughter’s part-time job was not working out. She couldn’t get to her job on time and for several weeks did not collect a paycheck that was a factor in the family’s finances. By week three the family was desperately missing my first paycheck as well as my daughter’s financial contribution. At this point, I was running from my job to the bank, with its inconvenient hours, and the cash-checking table. My frustration mounted as I stood in line worried that I would either be late for work again or unable to make a necessary household payment.
My wife became defensive when I told her that she needed to try harder to find a job. I raised my voice to my daughter whose excuses for missing work seemed more and more ridiculous. She claimed that her lost wages were the result of on-the-job discrimination. “Prove it,” I snapped at her. I then told my mother, who had suffered a stroke a few months back and was paralyzed on her left side that we had to sell her car to stave off homelessness. She was upset and accused me of robbing her of her independence. At this point I was so exhausted from making sure that I had my transportation covered to go to work that I almost told my mother she was becoming a burden.
Throughout the morning my “family” and I stayed in character. I noticed other couples also bickering. At one point the children next door were sent to juvenile hall after their parents failed to pick them up on time from school. Some people were incarcerated for various crimes including drug dealing. One family stayed out of the homeless shelter by doubling up with another family. But that had its set of social problems and frustrations.
The simulation happened over a couple of hours and after it was done, I was more dejected than relieved. There is living on a budget and then there is living on the edge of catastrophe. I went through a range of feelings during the simulation, but the one that stayed with me was vulnerability. A tape played over and over in my head—“There but for the grace of God go I.” It was no longer a well-worn cliché, but a deep and meaningful blessing.
A version of this essay appeared on JewishBoston.com