Christine Jordan was struggling. She was close to being evicted from the apartment where she lived with her 1-year-old son, and she had just gone to pay the rent, only to find her landlord's office closed.
To make matters worse, she didn’t have enough money for her utility bill, meaning her electricity would be shut off within the week.
"I’m under a lot of stress!" Jordan exclaimed, shaking her head.
Fortunately for Jordan, her predicament wasn't real. The 51-year-old Entergy employee was one of dozens participating in a poverty simulation held Tuesday morning at Kingsley House, a local nonprofit that provides social services to families.
Co-hosted by the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, Entergy Corp. and the Jefferson Community Foundation, the exercise was designed to help participants understand the daily struggles that low-income families face.
The participants each experienced four weeks — simulated in 15-minute segments — in the lives of people who had lost jobs, recently became homeless, were surviving on public assistance or were facing other challenges.
In addition to balancing budgets with sparse salaries, finding jobs and dealing with transportation issues and child care, the simulations also factored in chance "wild cards." Those included illegal evictions, surprise suspensions at school, job losses and random extra expenses.
"I’m learning that it’s really difficult to figure out how to make ends meet," Jordan said. "This really brings it home."
Thousands of southeast Louisiana residents struggle with similar realities every day. About 19 percent of households in the region live in poverty. For a household of four people, that means surviving on an annual budget of $30,750 or less.
And many more are dangerously close to that threshold. According to a 2016 report issued by the United Way, more than 42 percent of the state’s population qualifies as ALICE, short for Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed.
The term is used to describe residents who hold jobs but still struggle to pay basic expenses. Frequently, ALICE members have low-paying jobs, little or no savings and are just one emergency away from poverty.
In Orleans Parish, more than 41,250 households live in poverty and nearly 38,200 qualify as ALICE.
To help, the United Way in 2016 introduced its Blueprint for Prosperity, which outlines a plan to eradicate poverty in the region. The plan informs investments and advocacy in education, health care and financial stability across seven parishes: Washington, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson, and Plaquemines.
So far, the United Way has invested in more than 70 programs with 50 agencies that address mental and physical wellness, income, employment and education. They include enrichment programs for children, workforce development and prisoner re-entry programs.
The organization last year also opened the J. Wayne Leonard Prosperity Center, which better aligns social services and helps families increase their income and savings, decrease debt and build assets.
The organization's CEO, Michael Williamson, emphasized that even well-to-do families should care about poverty-eradicating efforts, because those in poverty put a strain on local resources, which in turn affects other community members.
"If 43 percent of our neighbors in Southeast Louisiana can’t afford the basics, they cannot help to stimulate the economy with purchasing power," Williamson said. "If our community cannot afford to save for the future, we all bear the costs."
Charles Rice, president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans, said the simulation helps community members find their own innovative ways to support struggling neighbors.
"Far too often, we talk about poverty without a comprehension of what it truly means for the hundreds of thousands of people in our region that face it daily," he said.
On Tuesday, participants described reaching a better understanding of what financial instability means, making them more empathetic toward the working poor.
"It taught me how quickly circumstances can change," said Norma Grace, a retired administrator at the University of New Orleans. "If anything, we should take off our veil of judgment."