Could you make it from paycheque to paycheque on a low income? United Way has launched an online poverty simulator that exposes users to the everyday challenges of living in poverty.
Make the Month challenges participants to make the hard financial decisions required for those with a poverty-level incomes. The program offers a series of real-life situations and a calculator that tabulates how much money is left in the budget until payday.
The simulator also has a stress-level meter to encourage users to imagine how stressed they might feel if they had to make those choices.
In my experience, people living in poverty are probably better budgeters than most of us, because they don't have access to credit
- Heather Block
Options such as choosing to go to the dentist or not, paying unexpected repair bills or opting out of social events are presented. For every decision made there is a consequence, both financial and emotional, and it is tabulated during the test.
The user can choose among three different life situations: single person, single parent or two-parent family.
Heather Block, director of strategic initiatives at United Way, said people often assume poverty is a consequence of not knowing how to budget.
"In my experience, people living in poverty are probably better budgeters than most of us, because they don't have access to credit," she said.
"This [simulator] gives a picture of those unexpected things that happen in people's lives that you just can't address when you are living paycheque to paycheque."
The program is meant to bring awareness to the difficulties of living in a low-income situation and dispel some common myths about poverty.
"We're hoping that people will get a glimpse into what it's like to live in poverty, and that people will be able to step away from some of the stereotypes that we have, some of the assumptions that we make about other people, and to look through another person's eyes and see what they are struggling with all the time," Block said.
Mary van Eerd-Cook, who has lived with little money at various points throughout her life, said poverty is not just a financial situation, but also an emotional one. Unexpected expenses and the inability to save and plan for the future take an emotional and physical toll as well.
"Once you hit an economic crisis that you can't actually change, that's a different story. The $18,000 [per year] that I thought was sustainable wasn't sustainable in the context of getting a dental infection. When you take into account when people are working up to 60 hours a week and just making their basic needs, that's still not sustainable," she said.
The United Way says one in 10 Winnipeggers live in poverty, and 24 per cent of Winnipeg's children live in poverty.
United Way of Winnipeg joined 13 other United Way organizations in Canada to create the online simulation program. It's modelled on the success of a similar initiative by the Calgary United Way. The project was timed to coincide with the month of November, which is National Financial Literacy Month.