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The statistics for escaping poverty in the United States are grim. More than three-quarters of children born to mothers who are poor or who have not completed high school will remain in poverty as adults.

In Montana, only 11% of children born into the lowest income bracket will rise to the top income bracket in their lifetime. While many Montanans are willing to pitch in to help change the odds for kids and families, I recently met a successful local business owner who told me that he grew up without running water: his childhood, he felt, was character-building.

In our vastly rural state, he’s not alone in his pride in a hard-scrabble upbringing. But as executive director of Mountain Home, I see a distinction between poverty as defined solely by income level (or even access to indoor plumbing), and a more complex, toxic poverty.

Toxic poverty is when a person doesn’t have enough money to provide for their basic needs, and has also lived through so much violence, racism, sexism, trauma, and/or untreated mental illness that it can be hard to imagine a life beyond survival. To expect someone to get out of toxic poverty and into the middle class without a lot of support is like expecting one to cross the Bob Marshall Wilderness blindfolded and barefoot. Maybe someone can do it. Most of us can’t even come close.

The consequences for a child growing up in toxic poverty can last a lifetime. As early as kindergarten, children experiencing toxic poverty may be so overwhelmed that they find it difficult to listen to the teacher, much less to problem solve or invent a new strategy for building the tallest marshmallow tower. Without intervention, the academic setbacks increase over time, which is particularly unfair, since education is the best gateway out of poverty.

Fortunately, organizations like Mountain Home help families break the cycle. Not only are the moms we serve young (16-29), but 65% come to us homeless, and more than 90% have a history of childhood trauma. When they first enroll in our services, less than half say that they have even one close friend or family member that they can count on for support.

Mountain Home meets them where they’re at with housing and basic needs, life skills coaching, and therapeutic support. As a result, last year 92% of the moms in our residential programs exited to safe and stable housing. Approximately 80% of the children improved their health. And the sense of emerging confidence and self-efficacy among the parents nearly doubled. While each mother draws on her own courage to succeed, Mountain Home staff walks alongside her to help remove barriers along the way.

But there is more to building a future than overcoming obstacles, and to accompany moms on the next steps of their journey, we’re calling on Missoulians. This winter, Mountain Home is launching a national model called Open Table, where six to eight volunteers form a team to help a mom reach her goals. Whether her ambition is to buy her first car or to get through the holidays without a drug or alcohol relapse, the team’s job is to contribute their own experiences, social networks, and compassion. Because meaningful relationships take time, the volunteers must commit to meeting weekly for a full year. (To learn more, please email stacy@mountainhomemt.org.)

Mountain Home and our new Open Table initiative are big investments. Because of the sticky and complex nature of toxic poverty, our programs go deep and last long. But the benefits grow for generations to come.

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Crissie McMullan is executive director of Mountain Home Montana.

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