If you’re familiar with UWSECT, you’ll notice that much of our work focuses on ALICE- Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed- families. After hearing this acronym and seeing on our publications, I decided to do a little digging into what that really means. Luckily, a brief overview is already provided on our website, which gives some useful statistics. But I wanted to know more, so I checked out some other pages, including specifics on New London County and the full 2016 ALICE report. There’s a lot in the report, and as someone who loves data it was pretty exciting to have so much information right there in front of me. ‘This is so great!’ I thought, ‘What if everyone took the time to read this? We’d understand so much more about where we live! I’m going to read this all right now!’ But unfortunately my passion for data is tempered by a short attention span, so I only went over a few pages before moving on to something else. Feeling a little guilty, I started wondering about how to make this kind of information more digestible and tangible for myself and others. Because as cool and important as numbers are, precise statistics aren’t usually the kinds of things that stay in your memory and motivate you to do something.
Thankfully, I’m not the first one to have considered this question. In fact, all the United Ways in Connecticut went looking for a way to make the realities of ALICE more tangible for people, and they came up with a game that simulates some of the tough decisions that ALICE families face. I started playing with a ‘this will be fun!’ mindset, which quickly changed as I began answering questions. Even though it was just a computer simulation, I could feel myself getting anxious every time something unexpected happened, like an injury or transportation breakdown. In my real life I’m very proactive about addressing problems, but in the game I found that I was forced to take chances and put things off as I eyed my bank account (“Do I really need to go to the doctor…maybe it’ll just work itself out? I can’t worry about my blood pressure right now…one frozen dinner won’t kill us, right?”). It also taught me a little about myself by prompting me to examine my priorities, and some questions made me hesitate more than others. The hardest ones for me personally were when I had to choose whether I could afford for my ‘child’ to participate in the fun activities that all the other kids were doing, like going on field trips, participating in activities at the fair, or bringing in cupcakes for the kindergarten class. I thought about what it’s like to be a kid and not understand finances, and how when my family’s budget was tight my parents put a lot of effort into making sure that we as kids never had to know. The simulator was a good reality check for me, and made me grateful for my current situation.
It’s important to remember that a game can never fully convey the realities of people’s different experiences. But it can be a useful tool in beginning to understand just how unpredictable life can be, and how much higher the stakes are when you don’t have financial security. And once you are in that mindset, the numbers in the ALICE report take on more meaning. I also highly recommend coming on a United Way bus tour, because meeting real people and listening to them talk about their experiences and lives is more powerful than anything that can be put on a screen (anyone who has gone on the tour can tell you this). Our next bus tour will be November 8th, and is open and free for anyone interested. Speaking as someone who has taken the tour, I can almost guarantee that whatever you have scheduled for that Wednesday morning will not be as life-changing as listening and speaking with people from our partner agencies (and I promise nobody told me to say that!). Alice Soscia is the person to contact about registering, and you can reach her at email@example.com.
But most importantly, just make any kind of effort to learn about what it’s like to be ALICE. I know I’ll be revisiting the report to take in another few pages, a little at a time, because it’s only when we really understand our community that we can improve it.