With only two weeks left in the school year, yesterday my daughter’s third grade class in Fairfax County began week one of their Cities program. Now, you might be wondering what the Cities program is.
I asked myself that same question when my daughter began excitedly telling me about it. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became.
Essentially, each third grade class is turned into a “city” for a few hours a day. My daughter now resides in “Cougar County” and was both thrilled and concerned to learn that she would receive a 100 Zapper (equivalent to the dollar) loan from the mayor to begin her residency in Cougar County, but would have to pay back the loan at the end of the two weeks. She received a check book and quickly learned how to write checks, make deposits in the Green Place Bank, and balance her checkbook.
There were many decisions that needed to be made.
First, which job would she apply for? She carefully weighed her options: mayor’s assistant, banker, police officer, maintenance, newspaper editor, government, or private sector. She opted for the private sector and decided she wanted to be an entrepreneur (much to the chagrin of her dad, a lifelong bureaucrat).
Her second decision: how much to charge for her products? As an entrepreneur, she was required to submit a project proposal to be approved by the mayor. She carefully calculated her supply fees (20 Zappers per week) and rental fees (10 Zappers per week) to assist her in determining the price of her products (homemade clay animals and friendship rings—absolutely worth every Zapper if you ask her very unbiased mom).
Third decision: should she purchase the optional health insurance and optional business insurance at 10 Zappers per policy per week?
This is where she hit her stumbling block.
The mayor informed the citizens that each day a medical disaster or a business disaster would randomly hit one citizen. The cost if you were not insured—250 Zappers.
Lengthy discussions ensued as she weighed the decision. What if she couldn’t sell enough of her products to pay for the supply and rental fees? Would she have any Zappers to shop in Cougar County? Could she repay the 100 Zapper loan? How could she afford the insurance if her products didn’t sell? How could she afford to pay 250 Zappers if she was uninsured and hit by a disaster?
While the scenario my daughter faces in Cougar County is merely a third grade lesson plan, unfortunately, it is a stark reality for thousands of women and their families in the Washington metropolitan area.
According to The Portrait Project, low-income, women-headed families are the most economically vulnerable population in the Washington metropolitan area–57 percent of families living in poverty in the region are women-headed households.
They are living one paycheck, one car repair, or one medical crisis away from disaster.
A recent report from the Urban Institute stated, “Savings and assets can cushion families against sudden income loss, increase economic independence, and bolster long-term economic gains.” And yet, 24 percent of low-income families do not hold bank accounts, 35 percent do not own cars, 90 percent have no retirement account, and 60 percent do not own homes, leaving them with nothing to fall back on when hard times hit.
We’ve all seen the recent headlines, “Rising Prices Hit Home for Food Stamp Recipients,” “Jobless Claims Jump 25 Percent from ’07 in N. Va,” “Economic Troubles Multiply Requests for Help in DC Area.”
Gas and food are at record prices. Foreclosures are increasing. Unemployment rates have reached new highs. By all accounts, hard times are here.
So then, what does it mean to be one step away from a financial crisis?
To get a better sense of what it takes to truly survive economically in the Washington metropolitan area, I consulted the Family Economic Self-Sufficiency (FESS) Standard, a tool created by one of our Grantee Partners, Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). The standard “estimates the level of income necessary for a given family type—whether working now or making the transition to work—to be independent of welfare and/or other public and private subsidies.”
You might be surprised to learn that according to WOW, the 2005 self-sufficiency standard for a single mother with an infant and a preschooler living in D.C. was $53,634. That’s what it would take to cover the family’s basic needs (housing, child care, transportation, food, health care, miscellaneous expenses, and taxes).
Compare that to the federal poverty guidelines, which calculate the poverty level for a family of three at $16,090. If that same mother works full-time making minimum wage in Washington, DC, she would earn just $19,322.
If you earn 36 percent of what is necessary to provide for your family’s basic needs, what exactly constitutes “hard times”? Aren’t you already there?
As my daughter struggled to make her decisions about Cities, I asked her think about this reality.
What would it be like to come home from school to discover she had to move out of the only home she’s ever known and not be sure where she’s going? What would it be like to live on $1 per meal per day? What if she had no health insurance and the three trips to the pediatrician that we’ve made in the last two weeks for her bronchitis threw our family into debt?
She had no answers to my questions.
And so when my daughter came home last night, I was anxiously awaiting her final decision. Did she purchase the insurance or did she decide it was simply too expensive?
In the end, she opted to purchase both the health and business insurance. But, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to pay back her Zappers loan, she stayed up late to make additional clay animals to sell the next morning.
Yes, it’s a simple third grade lesson plan, but imagine if it were real.
Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat is a Program Officer at The Women’s Foundation