Living a life like ALICE

Poverty simulation puts tough decisions into perspective

United Way of Southwest LouisianaSpecial to the American Press

Forty community members took part in a simulation Wednesday, spending an hour trying to navigate a month in the life of someone who is employed but has difficulty affording even basic expenses.

The simulation, hosted by the United Way of Southwest Louisiana, was part of its inaugural Women United event in partnership with Entergy. Participants assumed new identities and experienced the tough decisions faced by 47 percent of Southwest Louisiana residents who are considered Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — or ALICE.

“This is designed to give you a little bit of an idea of what they go through,” Paula Odom, customer service specialist for Entergy Texas, said. “Everything is based on a real life family.”

The Missouri Community Action Network designed the program. During the hour, participants were divided into families and assumed responsibilities like attending work and school. They also had to deal with unforeseen events, like sickness, theft or jail time, while still keeping the family afloat until the end of the month.

“That one bump in the road can throw them into a tailspin,” Odom said.

Families had to use their limited assets to afford groceries and pay bills at the simulated stores and institutions. They also had to present a transportation pass at each of the dozen stations, which included pawn shops, quick cash/cash checking businesses, social services and interfaith resource centers.

Liz Brister, manager of lowincome assistance programs for Entergy Mississippi, said transportation is “one of the biggest barriers and obstacles for ALICE families.” Because keeping oil in the car, changing flat tires and filling the gas tank can be a chore for those who are financially stable, it certainly weighs heavily on those who are not, she said.

The simulation helps raise awareness for the types of programs the United Way helps to fund.
Denise Durel
United Way of Southwest Louisiana CEO and president

Others who took part in the simulation mentioned the difficulty in juggling the bank’s limited hours, fees charged by check cashing businesses and the demands of making ends meet.

Brister said the “banking desert” is a limitation that many ALICE citizens deal with daily. She recommended planning and policy makers pay attention to those types of realities that aren’t often considered when making community decisions.

The experience revealed that those living in an ALICE reality face more emotional distress. A participant who was a father in the simulation said he “felt panicked the whole time — a one-handed juggler dropping balls everywhere.”

LaJeanne Blanchette, a 14-year-old daughter in the simulation, said she understood the scenarios teens in ALICE families have to face.

“Even though I was 14, just like the mom, we’re discussing what we’re going to pay first,” she said. “It kind of made me think, ‘Well, I’m pretending to be 14, but I think there probably are 14-year-olds that have to take the adult role to discuss with the parent what do we do.’ ”

The simulation was set up to make residents think and apply that insight into the places they live and work, said Denise Durel, United Way of Southwest Louisiana CEO and president.

“Hopefully each, in their own perspective, participant now understands firsthand the people that they’re serving,” she said

The simulation also helps raise awareness for the types of programs the United Way helps to fund, Durel said.

“It’s really for people to understand that if they do have the means to contribute, how really important it is so we can support these safety-net organizations like utility assistance, food and shelter transportation tokens,” she said.