Are you tough enough to be poor? At Rappahannock Legal Services, our clients, in order to be eligible for our services, must in most cases have income below 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Let's use a typical client family of a single parent and two kids. For a three-person household like that, the monthly income for that family would have to be at or below $1,900 or thereabouts to qualify for free legal services. Surviving on $1,900 is pretty easy, right? Or is it?
Do you think you could survive on, for example, $1,000 a month? To find out, check out an intriguing website called Playspent.org. On that site, you can play a game that will allow you to simulate the decisions that people living in poverty have to make every day. You start out with $1,000 and no job, and the simulator walks you through all the challenges, tough choices, and difficult scenarios faced by poor persons every day in the real world. Do you think you would survive the challenge of living in poverty? Would you choose to go to work while sick or lose valuable wages with unpaid sick leave? Would you take in a stranger as a boarder to afford your rent or struggle to make the rent payment on your own?
When I did the poverty simulator exercise on that website for the first time, I did manage to get through the month with some money left over, but it was at the price of alienating my children (I refused to pay for field trips, birthday parties, materials for a gifted child program), and ruining my health (going to work sick, skimping on food, not paying for health care). When you run through the simulator exercise, ask yourself whether you have ever judged people less fortunate than yourself when they did not react to a situation the same way you did. For example, a mom in poverty may not show up at her kids' school events because she will be fired if she takes off in the middle of the day.
I was impressed with this simulation of poverty because it was so realistic in describing the tough choices our incredibly resourceful clients face every day, but no matter how many times I played it and experimented with the results of many different choices, there was no scenario presented that described a poor person and their options when faced with a civil legal problem. Once that single parent with two kids and $1,900 per month gets done paying for extremely basic items (rent, utilities, food, clothes, transportation), there surely is nothing left over for a four or five-figure retainer for a private attorney. If faced with a domestic violence issue, custody, housing or consumer issue, what would that person do? Try to handle it herself? Some have described a person handling a legal matter on their own as like expecting a patient to perform her own surgery! Just how realistic is the promise of equal access to justice for all if not everyone can afford to hire a private attorney? Should justice be a luxury item?