HELENA — Estimates show around a tenth of residents in Lewis and Clark County are living at or below the poverty line. On Thursday afternoon, people from around the Helena area got an up-close look at what it’s like to live in poverty.
Local organizations sponsored a Community Action Poverty Simulation at Carroll College. Several dozen community members – including elected leaders, representatives from nonprofits and health care organizations and others – put themselves in the role of families living with limited income.
Each participant joined a simulated family, taking on the responsibilities of a family member over a simulated month – four weeks of 15 minutes each.
“Your goals are to keep your home secure, feed your family on a regular basis, keep your utilities on, make all necessary loan payments and pay for miscellaneous expenses,” said Chandler Rowling of Good Samaritan Ministries, one of the organizers.
More than 20 volunteers set up a variety of stations, simulating everything from employment offices and banks to grocery stores and pawn shops. There were some services available to help the participants with their costs, but each one required them to use their limited “transportation passes.” In the end, nearly everything cost money.
By the middle of the third week, many of the simulated families were dealing with serious problems.
“We had a random eviction notice, we had some plumbing problems, and I have a child that has some medical needs – just kind of a constant thing,” said participant Dave Ellis, a registered nurse at St. Peter’s Health. “You know, the bank closed on me, so I had to wait for a really long time at the bank just to cash a check. Yeah, some challenges.”
While the setup might seem exaggerated, organizers say the issues it brings up are all very real.
“We really try to emphasize that this is a simulation; it’s not a game,” said Sarah Sandau, Lewis and Clark Public Health’s prevention program supervisor. “It’s simulating what real life looks like here in Helena.”
Leaders point to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, showing about 11% of people in the county live on incomes below the federal poverty level. Rowling said many families have far fewer resources than even what the participants in this simulation were given.
Sandau said their hope is that this exercise will help people have empathy for those families who are struggling.
“It is still a great amount of people in our community,” she said. “What we hope this simulation does is build that awareness and help deisolate ourselves from them – reduce the ‘them versus us.’”
After the simulation ended, the participants held a debriefing to discuss what they experienced and think about possible steps forward.
“We hope that people take that away and know what they could do in their personal lives to help and what they could do in their professional lives to help,” Sandau said.
In addition to Lewis and Clark Public Health and Good Samaritan, organizations like the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, Helena Food Share and Montana No Kid Hungry also helped sponsor the event. Sandau said they also had help from people who have had lived experience.