Learning about poverty in Edmonton through a simulation

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Edmonton’s first-ever Poverty Simulation. Sponsored by the EPCOR Community Essentials Council (of which I was a member), the simulation was organized by the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region and brought a few dozen community and business leaders together to learn more about the challenges that low-income families in our community face. According the United Way’s Cost Poverty Report 2012:

The cost of poverty in Alberta is between $7.1 and $9.5 billion per year – a monetary cost incurred by us all. But the deeper costs are seen through the lives of those living in poverty, the effects it has on them, their children and families.

The poverty simulation attempts to provide some insight into those deeper costs.

After I arrived I was given a nametag that told me which character I’d be playing. Turns out I would be Diana Duntley for the morning, a 14-year-old girl. After breakfast, we were instructed to find the rest of our family, and to read the package that gave us more information about our particular situation. I was in school but unmotivated, my older brother had dropped out and was in trouble with the law, and my father was now out of the picture leaving my mother without a job but a bunch of bills to pay.

Poverty Simulation
Photo supplied by United Way

Our task was to survive for a month and to get all of our bills paid. To simulate the time, each week took 15 minutes, and each weekend an additional 2 minutes. Services and organizations were setup all around the room – the school, the grocery store, the utility company, the bank, etc. To get from place to place, you often had to surrender a transit ticket, to try to simulate the transportation challenges people face.

I went to school for three of the four weeks (one was a holiday so there was no school) while my brother and mother did their best to try to find ways to pay our bills. My mother managed to get a job, and my brother turned out to be quite adept at getting vouchers and assistance from the services in the room. In the end though, we did not manage to pay all of the bills.

Poverty Simulation
Photo supplied by United Way

The experience was an eye-opening one for me. I think the word most often used by participants to describe how the simulation made them feel was “hopeless”. It’s a simulation, but it really does give some valuable insight into the difficult decisions that those “living on the edge” in our community face each month. Here are the key things I took away from the simulation:

  • We had no idea where to start, and I suspect many people in our community face that challenge. What’s the best strategy or approach to ensure you can make ends meet? We do have 211 here in Edmonton but unfortunately that did not exist in the simulation. I have been asking people about it ever since, and not many know about it.
  • The teachers at school spent a significant chunk of their time dealing with issues that had nothing to do with teaching the curriculum. Following up with students for fees, needing to send letters home to parents, etc.
  • There’s doesn’t always seem to be a lot of support for families who are just barely making it each month. When we think about the less fortunate we often think about shelters, but there’s a whole range of services needed to help the families that are just trying to pay the bills. From the United Way’s Pathways Out of Poverty: “Poverty is not having sufficient resources, capabilities, choices, security, and power necessary to enjoy an adequate standard of living.”
  • When you spend all of your time and energy of just making sure you have heat or just getting food on the table, there’s no opportunity to ensure the food you’re buying is healthy and nutritious, nor is there any time or money to save for a better future. You’re always dealing with right now, instead of preparing for tomorrow.

I thought the simulation was really well-organized. It was developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, and it has since been used all around North America. The United Way localized the program to make it fit the Edmonton context, and I expect they will continue to improve and tweak it based on feedback. One suggestion I would make is to try to simulate the transportation challenge more realistically. The cost per ticket is now $3, not $1 as it was in the simulation, but more important is the amount of time it can take to get from place to place. In the room everything is conveniently located close together and close to where everyone lives, but in the real world services may actually be quite far away. Another improvement would be to provide more concrete actions or next steps to the participants. Going through the simulation is great, but what happens next? How can you take action to make a difference?

Poverty Simulation
Me talking to the utility company. Photo by David O.

I wanted to share some of the statistics that everyone who participated in the simulation left with. On education:

  • Approximately 9000 students drop out of high school each year in Alberta.
  • 40% of adults in Alberta have low literacy skills and 50% of adults have low numeric skills.
  • Approximately $142 million is incurred annually by the Province of Alberta for high school drop outs (that’s unemployment, lost tax revenue, social assistance, judicial system and health care costs, etc.)
  • 73% of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit students in EPSB do not graduate within the first 3 years of entering Grade 10.
  • Over 2100 children received food through E4C’s School Lunch program during the 2010/2011 school year.

On income:

  • As of September 2012, there were 2459 people on the wait list for social housing in the Capital Region.
  • In 2009, roughly 123,000 people in the Capital Region were living in poverty (using the Statistics Canada measure of Low Income Cut-Off).
  • Approximately 15,000 individuals were served every month by Edmonton’s Food Bank in 2011.
  • Approximately 44% of food bank users are under the age of 18.
  • Three of four children living in poverty come from homes where at least one parent is working.

On wellness:

  • In Edmonton, there are more than 40 youth gangs which engage in drug related crimes, extortion, and auto theft, among other crimes. Approximately 80% of the people involved in the drug trade in Edmonton are estimated to be 18-30 years old.
  • In 2011, the Edmonton Police Service responded to 6292 reported cases of domestic violence.
  • One in five people in our community will likely experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • The Capital Region is the second largest growth area for government-related services, and 211 has experienced a 10.2% increase in call volume recently.

And finally, here are a few related statistics provided by the Edmonton Social Planning Council:

  • The average weekly cost of a nutritious food basket for a family of four in Edmonton has increased by 6.6% from $186.88 in April 2010 to $198.93 in April 2012.
  • Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Edmonton has increased by 4.2% from $994 in April 2010 to $1,036 in April 2012.
  • The cost of water, heat and electricity in Edmonton has increased by 12.4% in the two years between 2009 and 2011.
  • The cost of a monthly bus pass has increased by 11.1% from $75.25 in January 2010 to $84.65 today.
  • The cost of regular unleaded gasoline in Edmonton has increased by 28.7% from 87.2 cents/litre in June 2010 to 112.2 cents/litre in June 2012.

I understand the United Way will be organizing more simulations in the future, so if you ever get the opportunity to participate I would highly recommend that you do!

You can learn more by reading this post by Karina Hurtado about a poverty simulation that took place recently in Calgary, and this post by ABC Head Start.

  • What an amazing way to get people thinking and talking about poverty! You’re right that most people think of the homeless but that there’s a huge gap in between people paying their bills and getting by just fine and being on the street – and that’s where more housing and programming, and awareness of what’s available, is needed.

  • Katharine

    Kudos Mack on your sharing your experience so well.

  • A Canadian Foodie

    This is the kind of simulation we used to set up at Mary Butterworth School for student learning to effect change. You have hit a raw chord here as teaching for 30 years with Edmonton Public Schools I have been touched by the lives of many of these children… and it is heart breaking. As, at such a young age, they do feel hopeless. That is the word, Mack. My first year of teaching was at McDougall school during the Vietnam “boat people” era. I taught a class with 24 children where there were 10 different mother tongues spoken at home. The little ones were 5 years old. I did home visits. I worked to provide a sense of stability in their young lives, but the parents needed as much support. It was a daunting task and I felt that hopelessness they felt. Through the years I have been deeply touched by so many of my students living in poverty. I always had food in my classrooms for a good lunch and a healthy snack. And that was such a small part of the problem. The stress of the oppressiveness of that sense of “hopelessness” within the home drives everything. What a fantastic experience. Bravo to EPCOR community essentials council for taking this on! Absolutely brilliant.
    🙂
    V

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