Monthly Archives: February 2019

Lives Transformed — PART 1

Over the next few months, meet four Circle Leaders who have changed their lives with Circles.

“I was doing everything I knew to get out of poverty. But to my shock, it became apparent that I really knew very little about any other economic class other than my own.”

—Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz, McPherson KS

I was raised in poverty, and at age 16, I dropped out of high school and left home with a boyfriend. That began a 13-year period of drugs, alcohol, and an abusive relationship. We moved from Kansas to Texas to Tennessee to Arkansas to Oklahoma.

At age 29, I finally left the boyfriend who was then my husband. Soon after I left, I realized I was pregnant. Thinking of my newborn son and his future, I started college and a job.

I was still struggling with alcohol on and off and with relationships that didn’t last. I had another son and then another. Financial aid helped with tuition, but to make ends meet, I worked as a janitor at my college and as an art instructor for kids. In 2010 when my financial aid ran out, I took a third job as a bartender to cover my final years of tuition.

During that time, I stopped by a church that I frequented to receive free diapers. I told the kind lady who handed out the diapers how much those diapers meant to me and how someday I was going to finish school, claim a better life for my kids, and return to give back. She pointed to a flyer about a class called Circles that helps people get out of poverty.

I thought, “What are these people going to teach me about poverty that I don’t already know?” Then I thought, “I’ve gotten so many diapers from this lady that I better sign up!” So I did.

I was doing everything I knew to get out of poverty. But to my shock, it became apparent that I really knew very little about any other economic class other than my own. I learned I was a master at putting out fires but inept as to how to keep them from igniting.

In 2011, I entered Circles scared, broken, exhausted, and suspicious of the program. But I left that first night with hope and was able to admit how alone and vulnerable I had been all those years.

When I started Circles, my boys were 9, 5, and 2, and we lived in a trailer with broken windows, holes in the floor, and a faulty water heater. I owned a car, but it was always breaking down. I was at work or at school five or six nights each week, which meant dragging my kids home late in the evening from the babysitter. My school-aged kids struggled with behavior issues. And, I felt like a failure as a mother.

Twelve weeks later, I graduated from Circles training. I committed to attend weekly meetings for 18 months. Classmates and I were matched with middle-class “Allies,” who became our friends. Everything in my life started falling into place. My name came up for a housing voucher, and we left the trailer park. A friend helped me find a dependable car. And that year, 2012, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college.

I received a paid, part-time position helping with Circles, and the church that housed our Circles office asked me to be the outreach coordinator for the diaper and food ministry. The first time I went to Walmart and filled up the cart with diapers, I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. I had become the kind lady who helps moms like me.

I set long-term goals with my Allies. I wanted to get my teeth fixed. Thirteen appointments and $1,700 later, I reached that goal. I wanted out of poverty. In early 2014, I was hired as a full-time Circles coach. I was working three jobs at the time, but with this new position, I was finally making enough to officially leave poverty. My third goal was to buy a home. Looking back, I estimated that I had moved 71 times.

In 2016, I remarried. In 2017, I landed a great job directing student services and poverty issues at a large educational consulting company. Today, my boys are 15, 12, and 9. Our household income is $120,000 per year. And, yes, we own a home. Sometimes I’ll hear a little voice in my head that says, “Rebecca, you’re not poor anymore.” It’s almost unbelievable.

© 2019

Bootstraps and Benefits

Ideology, more often than not, drives policy. Denise Rhoades, a fervent conservative and Circles enthusiast, approached me after hearing my panel remarks at the Midwestern Governors Association conference on poverty and commented, “You are a progressive with a conservative accent.” Bemused, I asked her what she meant. She said that my focus on economic development, job creation, qualifying people for the workforce, and changing the accountability of the system are ways in which both progressive and conservatives can agree.

Denise and I continued our conversation, and she suggested we write a book together, which we did, titled, Bootstraps and Benefits, What the Right and Left Understand about Poverty and How We Can Work Together for Lasting Solutions. In it, we describe ideological assumptions of those who believe in creating more benefit programs and those who believe in offering bootstrap incentives. Making generalizations for the purpose of understanding one another can come with more risk than reward. Any attempt might be fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding and faultfinding. Yet, for those who would appreciate more of an explanation of what we mean by Bootstraps and Benefits, here are a few broad-stroke generalizations:

With regard to the Bootstraps and Benefits ideologies, where would you place yourself on the scale below? Where would you place your community? Where would you place your organization’s board and top management team?

The Bootstraps and Benefits book appreciates both perspectives, while keeping a focus on reducing the poverty rate by 10% and supporting families to achieve 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL). The FPL for a family of four is roughly $25,000, so we aim for a family of this size to earn twice that income, or roughly $50,000 annually.

Focusing on clear goals is a unifying way to address the differences between conservative and liberal political ideologies. It isn’t necessary to agree or compromise on key values when we are disciplined in working together on achieving mutual goals. Arguing about hot topics can even be avoided by viewing them as distractions from supporting people out of poverty.

With regard to legislation, administrations will always support policies consistent with their party’s viewpoints. Thus, our work must align with right and left policy opportunities that show efficacy in reducing the poverty rates. Furthermore, evidence shows that poverty rates go down when the economy is producing more and better jobs. Therefore, transformational leaders can become interested in economic development planning and can align poverty reduction efforts with the emerging economy.

The content for this Blog Series is drawn from the Poverty Reduction Lab program, a collaboration with CQIU. Stay tuned for more about:

  • Dismantling the poverty management system,
  • Leading your community through the four stages of change, and
  • Creating a pathway to end poverty.

To receive subsequent blog posts, sign-up for The Big View Newsletter, our monthly bulletin about poverty research and policy change.

Warm regards,

Scott. C. Miller, Founder and CEO, Circles USA

A Deeper Look into Poverty in U.S. Culture

The European roots of the United States come from nations that had significant disparity between a small ruling class and the masses, where poverty was typical. Severing political connections to Great Britain, the 1776 Declaration of Independence aspired for equality, although the systems that were created replicated many old patterns. European settlers imagined a boundless wilderness to tame in America and created disparity with indigenous populations. The Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s followed patterns established by military organizations originally meant to serve the interests of kings and queens. Schools were built to serve agriculture and new industrial enterprises. Today, these systems still resemble early efforts to create a conforming labor pool.

While the Declaration of Independence aspired for everyone to have “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the United States has not accomplished the political changes necessary to realize equality. Slavery was not abolished until 1865. Black males achieved the right to vote only in 1870, women the right to vote in 1920, and it took until 1964 to ban segregation in public places and employment discrimination based on race. At present, the United States has one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration. The culture of racism continues to negatively influence who can move out of poverty. White males have approximately a 300-year head start in getting ahead financially. To use a baseball metaphor, if one starts on third base, did they actually hit that triple and deserve all the entitlement associated with the feat?

The American Dream was established on an expectation that hard work could lead to social mobility. With a mantra of “bigger is better,” business leaders have argued against putting any limit on what people might earn, with fear that it will stunt economic growth domestically and push entrepreneurs abroad. Meanwhile, the world’s population has grown approximately 10 times in the past three centuries. Having seven billion people share the Earth challenges the idea of unlimited growth: How can our biosystems be sustained while rewarding unlimited growth and the consumption of the natural world?

The economy that was first installed in the United States did not produce a middle class. The growth of a middle class came from the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which made land available for farms and schools; the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. that made banking secure for citizens in 1933; the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 that made home buying financially safe; the labor policies of the mid-1930s and the Social Security Act of 1935 that provided an array of new benefits and protections to workers; the 1944 GI bill that gave grants to millions of veterans to attend college; and the Pell Grants of 1965 that made it possible for even more people to attend college. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I directly benefited from these policies that produced a strong middle class. In the 1980s, principles of free market enterprise influenced economic development. Financial crises in the 2000s led to a major recession. In recent decades, many policymakers have become concerned about a middle class that is shrinking. To reduce poverty rates, transformational leaders can advocate for policies that serve the majority of Americans.

Reducing Poverty Rates

War on Poverty legislation was introduced in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, creating programs that became our modern-day social safety net. In 1963-64, a Social Security administrator named Mollie Orshansky devised a poverty rate based on a formula using the cost of a subsistent food budget. Income roughly three times the cost of that food budget was considered to be above the poverty line. The official poverty rates have remained an important longitudinal barometer.

Compared Poverty RatesHowever, unequal inflation rates for necessities such as healthcare and housing have caused census analysts to create updated calculations known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure and Alternative Poverty Measure. Using these more accurate calculations, researchers at Columbia University calculated these new poverty rates from 1967 to 2012 and compared them to the official poverty rates. While the official poverty rate was stable from 12% to 15%, the updated measures showed that the poverty rate was 25.6% prior to 1967 and has dropped to 16% today.

Government Program ImpactFurthermore, researchers compared the updated poverty measures for a five-year time period (2007-2012) with and without government safety-net programs such as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); and others. Without government programs, poverty rates would have increased 5.1%, but with those programs, poverty rates rose only 1.3%. (For more detailed information, please see the 2016 report by the Office of Human Services Policy, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, titled Poverty in the United States: 50-Year Trends and Safety Net Impacts.) While the updated measures are more accurate indications, all metrics reveal information about how many people are financially suffering.

To inspire a community-wide intention to reduce poverty, Circles USA emphasizes getting children out of poverty as a focus of necessary system changes. Instead of saying, “Let’s get all the children out of poverty right away,” we recommend the goal of supporting 10% of the children out of poverty as a starting place to provoke a tipping point that over time could more quickly help the other 90% out of poverty. Plus, it’s easier for people to withhold judgments about poverty when focused on the innocence of children.

The content for this Blog Series is drawn from the Poverty Reduction Lab program, a collaboration with CQIU. Review the entire series on our Blog. Stay tuned for more about:

  • Dismantling the poverty management system,
  • Leading your community through the four stages of change, and
  • Creating a pathway to end poverty.

To receive subsequent blog posts, sign-up for The Big View Newsletter, our monthly bulletin about poverty research and policy change.

Warm regards,

Scott. C. Miller, Founder and CEO, Circles USA