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Published in Nonprofits

United Way simulation tool shares experience of ALICE households

BY Sunday, January 17, 2021 12:22pm

An online simulation tool rolled out by Heart of West Michigan United Way in September is designed to build empathy and help people understand what it’s like to live as an ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) household.

The Making Ends Meet online simulation, developed in partnership with Grand Rapids-based Well Design Studio, allows users to pick different characters and scenarios as they try to get through the month with a limited amount of money. Participants can walk in the shoes of Anthony, a single male who works part-time at a restaurant; Carissa, a single mom with a child; Kara and Eric, a young family; and Sandra and Ed, an elderly couple on Social Security.

Heart of West Michigan has since entered into  licensing agreements with other West Michigan United Ways to use it.

Heart of West Michigan and corporate and nonprofit partners pushed the tool out on social media and distributed it with fundraising campaign materials. They typically use in-person simulation activities for workplace campaigns, but the ongoing pandemic reduced the number of workplace visits.      

“The one opportunity that we saw with this was people working from home, being virtual, not having that group setting to go through — we needed something that would kind of sit on its own and share the message,” said AJ Quackenbush, director of corporate philanthropy at Heart of West Michigan United Way.

ALICE households earn too much to meet poverty guidelines but don’t make enough to cover the costs of living in their county. They often live without a safety net, and one car repair, medical expense or job loss can lead to stress, debt and desperation. 

An estimated 28 percent of Kent County households qualify as ALICE, and 37 percent of households struggle to cover the basic necessities of housing, child care, food, technology, health care and transportation.

The incomes are based on real data from the United Way’s ALICE report.

“I think a lot of people just don’t understand why a family would have a hard time making ends meet on a salary of $45,000 or $50,000,” said Maribeth Groen, assistant director of marketing and communications at Heart of West Michigan. “It’s not just that a family needs to learn how to budget … it’s little things like your brakes going out on your car that could make a huge impact. Until people really see these scenarios firsthand, they may not understand what it’s like.”

The tool can be updated with different scenarios and customized to fit different community needs or income data. For example, people who live in more rural counties face different transportation issues than their counterparts in the city.

Josh Leffingwell, partner at Well Design Studio, said the goal was to help increase awareness for real-life situations and flip the typical narrative of people living at or near poverty

“What this is really about is people who are struggling to truly make ends meet, but these folks all have jobs,” he said. “They are all trying to make that paycheck last for the entire month without going into debt.” 

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