NC Budget and Tax Center

Data tools for policymaking: Poverty simulations

Every holiday season there is renewed attention to the hardship that many of our neighbors face. While this focus is often temporary and disconnected from an examination of the causes and consequences, it is always an opportunity to make more concrete the data on poverty that too often falls flat in policy debates.

It is the stories of parents working two and three jobs to afford modest gifts at Christmastime and the job losses or medical debt that have pushed families further into poverty that feature prominently in the media coverage of the season and prompt people to act through charitable contributions. These stories are just a fraction of the daily experiences of 1.7 million Tar Heels who are living on less than $23,000 or less than half of what it actually takes to make ends meet. Charity alone won’t fix the structural issues—low-wage jobs, no jobs and with our state’s economy, public policy changes are needed.

So how can policymakers and other leaders be motivated to care and address these hardships through policy change? There are a number of organizations in North Carolina that host poverty simulations for a day, a sanitized and temporary look at hardship for those not accustomed to go without but whom often have the power to make things better. The idea is that by better understanding the reality of hardship, better policy choices can be made.

An on-line tool, SPENT, created by the Urban Ministry of Durham provides a similar data-based experience for the user interested in digging deeper into the structures that support (or don’t) struggling families. It presents the impossible choices that families living in poverty face like whether to pay the gas or electric bill or take a job that pays only slightly more than child care. Here are some other data found in this tool:

  • For every $1 saved on housing, a family spends 77 cents on transportation.
  • Over 44 percent of people living in poverty go to the public library to get on-line, a key tool for job searches and finding housing.
  • 39 percent of working families have to send a child to school knowing they are sick because of a lack of paid sick days

As policies grow the divide between the haves and have nots, these types of experiential platforms are increasingly important even if they cannot possibly replicate the experience of poverty. Numbers after all are only as good as the story they tell and the understanding they can create so that better choices can be made to build an economy that works for all.

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