Imagine if you and your spouse earned $2,600 a month in Bexar County — could you afford the $1,200 needed for your two kids to attend an accredited child care center?
You’re already spending $850 for a two-bedroom apartment and $600 a month on food. Could you make it to the end of the month financially if you had to go to a doctor, miss a few hours of work or your car broke down?
Chances are, you likely couldn’t, according to a new online budget simulator recently launched by the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County.
The “Making Tough Choices” website demonstrates how working parents struggle to balance their family budget with basic needs and modest desires.
“Even though it’s gamified, it’s not a game,” said Jason Alemán, vice president of United Way’s Ready Children Impact Council. “It’s really a [tool to] simulate what it is to make these tough choices every single day and the impact of that.”
In 2018, 35% of households (roughly 225,000) in Bexar County earned above the federal poverty level but below a living wage — meaning they don’t qualify for most assistance programs, but still live paycheck to paycheck. They are the working poor.
“Once you get past that [poverty level], all those benefits, for the most part, go away, and they have to fend for themselves,” Alemán said.
These low-income, working families are referred to by United Way affiliates and family support service providers as Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE.
While the poverty rate has remained relatively flat (15-17%) between 2010 and 2018, ALICE families jumped from being 25% to 35% of the county’s total population. That means 52% of all people in Bexar County aren’t making a living wage and have to make the tough choices outlined in the simulator, Alemán said.
ALICE data is processed every two years by United ALICE, but the census data used for the nonprofit’s 2020 report was delayed by the pandemic, he said. “We are anticipating the 2020 data to [show an] increase in the Alice population.”
United Way, which collects donations and allocates funding to programs that provide safety-net services and emergency care, hopes to use the simulator to attract donors and created general awareness of the large number of Bexar County residents who need a living wage, he said.
“One of our mantras is that you should be able to work 40 hours a week in San Antonio at a decent job and … not have to make these tough choices.”
Making the tough choices
The website’s simulator directs users to select different jobs (after being laid off), housing, childcare, food and transportation (bus or car) options.
Out of the roughly 167 possible combinations, only one set of choices allows the user to afford monthly expenses and be able to afford the accredited center-based childcare, Alemán said.
Users who choose healthier (and so more expensive) food, will have to balance that need with childcare quality.
“You start to think about the decisions that mom and dad are having to make just to make ends meet and keep the lights on,” Alemán said.
The simulation also throws typical real-life financial curveballs at the user, such as your father-in-law needing help paying for medications, the bus you ride to work breaking down or your spouse getting pink eye.
“The good news is your baby’s feeling better after a quick stomach bug. The bad news is you’re not,” one prompt reads. Do you call in sick (-$120), try to work a half-day (-$60), or tough it out?
Just a few too-expensive selections, and the simulation typically ends with the user running out of money. Making sacrifices means making it to the end of the month — sometimes with just a few dollars left even after opting out of signing a child up for soccer or going out for a celebratory dinner.
While the simulator pulls from recent Bexar County pricing data, both housing and childcare costs had to be decreased from the average in order for the simulator to allow at least some users to scrape by to the end of the month.
“The reality of it is, with the skyrocketing prices, you wouldn’t even be able to get through week two of the simulator” if it used the more recent higher costs estimates, Alemán said.
The tool was localized from a template that has been used across the U.S. The United Way of Texas has one as well, but the local organization wanted to localize the data to show “how much it actually costs to live here,” he said.
One member of United Way’s advisory council who tested out the simulator emerged with the realization “that people are making decisions based on their capacity financially and not on their values. … They’re having to make these decisions that make them get processed food and live in certain parts of town because they only do what they can afford.”