Poverty in the Keys: This is ‘not a game’

Date changed to Saturday, Sept. 30, tentatively.

United Way simulation makes poverty feel real

Angie Walterson is a married mom of two who works at First State Bank of the Florida Keys.

But in February, she found herself in tears in the middle of a room of strangers, helpless. Her husband up and left out of nowhere and she didn’t have enough money to feed her children, let alone enough to take a bus to look for a job. When she made it to the “government assistance office,” there was nothing left. She pawned most of her non-essential items for extra money, but left her kids’ belongings untouched in an effort at normalcy.

Walterson’s experience wasn’t real – it was part of a poverty simulation put on by United Way of the Florida Keys, but for almost half of the people in Monroe County, it could be real life.

“I felt completely vulnerable,” said Walterson, who participated in the simulation earlier this year as a part of Leadership Monroe. “I related with the situation because I have children and it was a really eye-opening the everyday situations some of our community members have to deal with.”

“Poverty is a reality for many individuals and families,” said United Way’s Kate Bauer-Jones. “But, unless you’ve experienced poverty, it’s difficult to truly understand.

To help bridge understanding, another simulation will be held, free and open to the public, on Saturday, Sept. 30 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Marathon City Hall.

The simulation is an interactive immersion experience, helping sensitize participants to the realities of poverty.

“It is not a game,” said Bauer-Jones of the simulation which is based on real people, and their real lives and experiences. “We are offering this experience to the community to promote awareness, increase understanding, and inspire action.”

During the simulation, participants are given a role to play and live a month in someone else’s shoes. The month is broken up into four 20-minute “weeks.” Some will be single mothers, like Walterson’s role; others will be married with the provider losing a job, or battling health issues creating a lack of employment. The participants will have to look for jobs, find transportation and buy gas, if they have a car, go grocery shopping, pay rent or mortgages, and utility bills.

Children are welcome at the simulation to experience the roles alongside their parents. “We’re hoping this will help increase the sense of urgency for families and impress upon people the disproportionate effect poverty has on children,” said Bauer-Jones. “Poverty disproportionately affects children. Sixty percent of our kids live in families below the ALICE threshold (see below), and according to the Department of Children and Families, we have the second highest rate of student homelessness in the state.”

Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsay also participated in the simulation in February and was given a role as someone who was laid off his job as an airline pilot with a mortgage to pay and children to get through school. “This simulation brings awareness and inspires change,” he said. “I learned a smile and kindness can go a long way.”

To register for the simulation, visit keysunitedway.org.

What did the ALICE report say about the Keys?

The ALICE (“Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed”) report looks at the real cost of living for families and individuals today, county by county across the state of Florida to understand what it really costs to live in the panhandle vs. Jacksonville vs. Lakeland vs. the Keys. The Keys have the highest cost of living in the state, and if you add folks below the federal poverty limit and folks living below what’s called the “ALICE Threshold” (survival income), 48 percent of year-round Keys residents barely make enough. The study reveals that Monroe County has the highest “household survival budget” in the state — $62,000 for a family of four to cover basic necessities such as housing, food, transportation, child care and health care.

Leave a Reply