Steve Varnum

Poverty is no game, but it could be

By Steve Varnum

What if all you can afford is one drink or one roll of toilet paper? What if you buy detergent packets at the laundromat? The answer: You pay top dollar.

Ever since there was an Internet, I've had a wish. I'm still hoping it'll come true. I've wished for an online game that demonstrates how much it costs, every day, with every dollar spent, to be poor.

The thought goes back, back, back to when I was a kid wanting to push the cart around the supermarket, even though I could barely see over the handle. I'd see my mother hoist a great big bag—the biggest bag they sold of, say, dog food. And I'd ask, "Why are you getting the big one?"

"Because we save money that way," she answered.

My kid brain thought: That can't be right. Biggest bag must mean biggest money. But, of course, it was right. "Quantity discount" is the reason we buy cases of soda, toilet paper and lots of other items.

But what if all you can afford with each trip to the store is one drink, one roll of TP, or the smallest bag of dog food. What if you go to a laundromat and pay per wash and per dry, getting detergent packets from the vending machine? The answer: You pay top dollar.

And what if you can't afford to do routine maintenance of your car or your home? The answer: You wait and hope and probably end up paying more to repair the problem than you would have to prevent it.

Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown described this three years ago in an article, The High Cost of Poverty: Why the Poor Pay More. One quote summed it up:

"The poor and 100 million who are struggling for the middle class actually end up paying more for transportation, for housing, for health care, for mortgages. They get steered to subprime lending. . . . The poor pay more for things middle-class America takes for granted."

It's one thing to read about poverty, another to experience it even at arm's length, like in an online game. But so many folks have the attitude that others deserve to be poor, or don't try, or don't care, that we need to engage them somehow if we're ever going to change the way Americans look at and react to poverty.

A guy can wish. Any game developers out there with a desire to make a difference and time to donate?

Steve Varnum is the communications guy at the Community Loan Fund.