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What’s it like to be poor in America? (a game for developing empathy)

Over 14 million Americans are unemployed.  Now imagine you’re one of them. Your savings are gone.  You’ve lost your house. You’re a single parent.  You’re down to your last $1,000. Can you make it through the month?

Spent is a simulation designed to introduce young people to what it means to truly be down on your luck.

A project of a Urban Ministries of Durham (NC) and copywriter Jenny Nicholson of McKinney, a Durham-based advertising agency, Spent challenges players to spend a month in the shoes of a newly unemployed single parent, trying to keep food on the table by making very tough daily decisions–whether to opt in our your new company’s   health insurance, whether to live further away from a low-paying job to pay less in rent, whether to pay the phone or electric bill, how to afford math tutoring for your child, whether to avoid credit card collectors, whether to attend a family member’s out-of-town funeral. Other options include smashing your child’s piggy bank or donating plasma.

My own luck was incredibly (realistically?) bad.

This award-winning 10-minute game would be an eye-opening challenge for many middle class learners, developing understanding and empathy for the growing number of working poor Americans.

(Note: the game ends with a pitch for a $5.00 PayPal donation to the Urban Ministries of Durham.)

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

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