Metro

Poverty simulation highlights painful choices local families make

Boston, Ma. 10/10/17, Left to right, Laura Sancken, Maria Infante, Rebecca Diamondstein, cq, participate in the HUB Week event at The United Way---- "Walk a Mile" poverty simulation. This Interactive event is where participants wrestle with the daily difficulties confronting families living in poverty and trying to make ends meet in Boston. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Left to right, Laura Sancken, Maria Infante, and Rebecca Diamondstein participate in the “Walk a Mile” poverty simulation at The United Way. Participants wrestle with the daily difficulties confronting greater Boston families living in poverty and trying to make ends meet.

On Tuesday afternoon, a couple of dozen Boston-area residents were offered a brief glimpse into the painful realities of trying to get by on a low income as part of the “Walk A Mile” poverty simulation.

Hosted by the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley as part of Boston’s HUBweek, the two-hour event charged participants with creating a working monthly budget for a theoretical family in greater Boston living near the poverty line.

“You are going to sit and face what a lot of families face,” said Emily Stanford, assistant vice president for innovation at the United Way.

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Those in attendance were divided into groups and given a packet of information providing them with a particular scenario -- they were a single-parent family raising three children, for instance. Groups were also given a list of nine costs they’d need to prioritize: health care, gasoline, automobile, groceries, bus fares, utilities, housing, child care, and entertainment. Each was given a specific monthly monetary total.

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The situations, the event’s leaders assured, weren’t manufactured. They’d come from real-life cases the service organization had handled and were designed to place participants in the position of having to make the kinds of decisions they don’t often, or ever, have to consider.

At a table near the front, Julie Wormser and Wendy and Michael Price got to work. Together, they were trying to figure out how their “family” — a single-parent with one child — could get by on a monthly income of $2,875, or just over $37,000 a year.

After settling on a few must-haves, including groceries and utilities, they began trying to determine where they might be able to skimp. And as they progressed, the conversation grew increasingly frustrated.

“I don’t know that we can afford health care,” said Wormser, of North Cambridge.

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At another point, Wendy Price simply shook her head.

“This simply cannot be done,” she said. “It simply cannot be done.”

Forced to cut already lean expenses, they forge ahead. They decided to cut their grocery costs from $1,000 a month to $600. They also agreed to a reduced child-care scheduled and tossed a $100-per-month allotment for entertainment.

“We’re just going to have to go to the library,” Wormser reasoned.

When time was up, they’d managed, with difficulty, to concoct a budget. But it had required crushing sacrifices: electing to go without a car, entertainment, and health-care coverage. And as other groups pointed out, even the “successful” budget included no room for the kind of extracurricular costs — kids’ athletic equipment, an emergency cab ride if the T broke down — that realistically pop up over the course of a given month.

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By the end, the exercise seemed to serve its purpose: to expose the stark realities that confront so many families here and elsewhere.

“Growing up, I thought my family didn’t have it easy,” said Jo Oltman of Everett, who’d been inspired to take part because of the topic. “But there was never a point where we didn’t have food or we were going to lose our house.”

After a group debriefing, one of the organizers stood in the front of the room and asked the participants how they were feeling.

From the back of the room, a response came quickly.

“Helpless.”

Participants at the HUB Week event at The United Way "Walk a Mile" poverty simulation.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Participants at the HUB Week event at The United Way "Walk a Mile" poverty simulation.

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com