My husband, Ben, sold all of our furniture, along with our second vehicle, and also lost one of my paychecks at a shady payday advance business. Yet somehow, we were still able to buy food for three children and ourselves.

Our problems started when Ben got fired as a computer programmer six months ago, leaving me to support the entire family—Brian, 9, Bart, 12, and Barbara our 16-year-old college-bound daughter—on my rather slim $275 a week paycheck.

My job? What a great gig. My boss has about as much compassion as Cruella de Vil and fires people on a whim. Showing up late just once means not getting paid.

“I got a line of people ready to take your job if I ask them,” she enjoys telling us.

Halfway through the month Ben told me we were in danger of missing our mortgage payment because of our high utility bill. We need my paycheck, he says. Annoyed, I tell him to look for work. Again.

He applied at the office where I’m stuck, but they’re not hiring.

“How’s that? You’ve fired everyone,” I complain to my boss.

“I don’t need your lip Betty, okay? You still want a job don’t you?”

She had me there. I do.

At the end of the month the bank foreclosed on our home. Working and homeless: what a picture. Ironically, Ben had paid the utilities—wouldn’t want the pipes to freeze for the new owner.

But while reflecting on all my apparent misfortune at the shelter, I felt lucky. In reality, my life isn’t that bad. The feelings of stress and fear, although intense, were reactions to a game, part of the Community Action Poverty Simulation hosted last week by the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth in collaboration with Montana Legal Services. I am not actually Betty the wage slave, wife of the unemployable Ben, and mother of three.

After the simulation ended, a volunteer coordinator for Legal Services, Michelle Hauer, told the participants that 16 percent of Missoulians live in poverty, including 4,700 children.

As we stood around discussing our fake problems and real stress, an overwhelming realization settled in. These imaginary worries we’d just confronted were real for a good portion of our community. As one participant said, “It’s something to think about next time I buy a $4 cup of coffee.”
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