Al Lewis: Poverty Isn't Just a Game

You've lost your job. You've lost your house. You're down to your last $1,000. Can you make it through the month?

Jenny Nicholson is tired of hearing how the poor are poor because they make poor choices. Let's see what kind of choices you make when it's your turn to be flattened by the economy.

That's the idea behind "Spent," an online game Nicholson created to challenge popular misperceptions about poverty. Play it at So far, it's been played more than a million times by people in 196 countries. And Nicholson is challenging every member of Congress to play it, too. (She's got a petition going at

Nicholson, 32, is a copywriter for McKinney, a national advertising firm in Durham, N.C., whose clients include Nationwide Insurance, Sherwin-Williams, Gold's Gym, Coldwell Banker and phone company, CenturyLink. Another client is Urban Ministries of Durham, which advertises "food, clothing and a future."

Nicholson created Spent to raise donations for Urban Ministries, and she based it upon some of the limited options she's faced in her own life. She grew up the daughter of a single mother who struggled to find work as a waitress and often collected welfare in a rural part of California's San Diego County.

Her mom couldn't afford a monthly gas bill, which meant no heat, cold showers, and learning to cook ramen noodles in a coffee pot because the gas stove didn't work.

"My mom always went through the grocery store with a calculator," Nicholson recalls. "We didn't have a checking account. She had $50 in her pocket, and if the food was $51, we were screwed. Sometimes, my mom wouldn't calculate the tax right and & we'd have to decide what we were going to put back."

They lived in a tiny rural town because they couldn't afford the sprawling city. That choice meant more driving, but her mom could never quite seem to scratch together more than $500 to buy a car, sometimes taping plastic over broken windows and frequently replacing the leaking oil. And when the car broke down, she missed work.

"I'm sure if you added up all those $500 cars she bought in her lifetime, she probably could have bought one new car that would have lasted a really long time," Nicholson said. "But when you're poor, you've got $500. You're not stupid. You're not like, wow this $500 car is a great deal."

Good choices require good options, and those are in shorter supply these days. The U.S. Census Bureau last week enumerated America's declining median household income and its rising poverty rate.

People turning to Urban Ministries aren't typically the folks in the streets with the cardboard signs, Nicholson said. Increasingly, they're college-educated, middle-class people who've been dealt a raw hand in a stagnant economy.

Nicholson said her inspiration for Spent came from the social networking game, "FarmVille," in which players run virtual farms, often scrapping around for farm supplies. It made her wonder, what if there were a game where people had to instead figure out how they could live on frighteningly limited resources?

I played Spent and got through the month with a little cash to spare, but I made choices I wouldn't make in real life, like letting my dog die to avoid a veterinary bill and denying my kid lunch money.

"It's a morbidly fun game," Nicholson said.

At least when it's just a game.

Nicholson's mother died from her third heart attack at age 46. She never got proper care. She didn't have health insurance, and California's Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, denied her for years, Nicholson said.

"Her approval letter came three weeks after she died," Nicholson said. "That was a huge lesson for me. Even as a poor kid, I had always thought, when you live in America, you're going to be taken care of."

Landing odd jobs, and applying for loans, grants and scholarships, Nicholson earned a bachelor's degree in writing from the University of California, San Diego, and a Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She's proof you can pull yourself up by those proverbial bootstraps, but she says she would not have been able to do without government assistance.

"I was the first person in my family to go to college," she said. "The day I stepped onto campus, my life was completely different."

Today, she's a gainfully employed taxpayer. She has house, a car and a life of relative comfort. She recalls someone once even accused her of being a "dumb little rich girl."

"We have two countries that exist side-by-side" Nicholson said. "Even having grown up in poverty, it feels really far away. And if it feels far away to me, and I lived it for 17 years, it must be completely unimaginable for somebody who has never lived it."

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at or