“Do we need to fill our prescriptions?”
“If I have no gas, how will I get to work?”
“Sometimes we have to do what we have to do.”
“They were super happy to go to jail because they got fed.”
“Our family has only $6 of wiggle-room in our monthly budget. I need $3 for school supplies tomorrow. It’s going to be tight.”
"I had to tell my daughter ‘no’ when she asked for $5 to go on a school field trip. I felt like a terrible mother!”
Those were just some of the comments overheard from participants at a recent in-person event hosted by United Way. The exercise they created and facilitated is called ALICE.
Nearly 40 percent of our area communities face the ongoing issue of poverty and all the difficulties and challenges it brings to people daily—living below the poverty line and just out of reach of the basic cost of living. To help the other 60 percent understand what life is like for this significant portion of our community, United Way created ALICE.
ALICE isn’t a person. It’s an immersion exercise used by the United Way to illustrate the sometimes never-ending cycle that poverty introduces to everyday family life. ALICE stands for asset-limited, income-constrained, employed and the simulation assigns each participant an identity, including name, age and an ALICE family unit. You get an income, a set of possessions and a realistic list of life-sized obligations and circumstances such as childcare, benefits, education, and transportation.
Participating in an “in-person” simulation, each ALICE family progresses through four 15-minute segments. Each 15-minute segment represents a week of what life is like in the experience of an actual ALICE family. (The online simulation is more condensed.) The simulation is based on situations commonly observed in the lives of people who cope with this kind of poverty—and the United Way and SNAP stress this is no game. This is an experience lived by many.
Then, just like life, chaotic circumstances are peppered in out of nowhere, just to keep it real. Because we all know anything can happen: a toothache that won’t go away, a cut in weekly hours for your job, or even something like a robbery. With a budget so tight, everyday circumstances can send a family reeling—losing a grip on their mortgage, losing transportation, not being able to pay a bill.
Unfortunately, this kind of poverty is sometimes only one step away from becoming reality for many families, but that it takes many more steps to get out of it. Some, perhaps, never do. That’s where United Way is trying to make a difference.
How the United Way helps
In Spokane County, the United Way is working to create long-term solutions to improve education, income and health to fight poverty. They focus on increasing high school graduation rates, financial stability of families and on decreasing domestic violence, child abuse and neglect rates.
A family in the simulation is considered to have survived ALICE conditions if they kept their home secure, utilities on, school-age children in school, made loan payments, didn’t scrimp on the food budget and responded appropriately to unexpected and miscellaneous expenses.