Monthly Archives: May 2020

The Empathy Table

Circles USA Executive Director Jamie Haft is included in the latest episode of The Empathy Table, along with Christy Vines (Ideos), Cheryl Cuthbertson (Children of the Nations), and Diana Oestreich (Preemptive Love). 

The conversation is about the future post-COVID-19 and what it looks like to care for the marginalized and vulnerable when we emerge from quarantine. More specifically, the group discusses building relationships and extending neighbor love to disadvantaged populations as they face increased suffering due to COVID-19. 

The group considers the ways relationships move us to go out and advocate for the good of others. Life under and beyond quarantine has a lot to do with sacrifice, and moving forward well demands inclusivity, reconciliation of brokenness, and the learning of lessons about ourselves and our own vulnerability. 

The group concludes their talk with reflections on togetherness, generosity, and how we can open ourselves to care for the wellbeing of those on the margins of society.

The Emerging Responsibility of Business

Paul Poler, CEO of Unilever, a massive multinational corporation, wrote an editorial in the Huffington Post in July 2014. Poler realized such a shift cannot happen in a vacuum. The driving force for companies cannot continue to be posting quarter-to-quarter gains. Not only is it too hard on both people and the environment and it’s not sustainable.

I have excerpted portions of this radical and optimistic call to adventure to the business community. It is worth reading the entire editorial.

It was Winston Churchill who famously said that ‘democracy was the worst form of government apart from all the others that had been tried.’ Much the same can be said for capitalism, particularly the form of capitalism that has been practiced over the past 20 years.’ … Capitalism, with all its faults, is the only game in town. The task confronting the present generation of leaders is to improve on it, to build on its strengths and eradicate its weaknesses. … If business is to regain the trust of society, it must start to tackle the big social and environmental issues that confront humanity, especially at a time when governments seem increasingly to be caught in shorter and shorter election cycles and have a hard time internalizing the global challenges in an increasingly interdependent world…As I have said many times, ‘Business cannot be a mere bystander in the system that gives it life.’ The environmentalist Paul Hawken believes that if there is any deficit we are facing right now, it’s a deficit of meaning….

Organizations are embracing similar thoughts to those of Poler. The B Corps movement in the United States is gaining traction with the formal adoption of triple-bottom lines: profits, people, and the planet. From the B-Corps website: “Collectively, B Corps leads a growing global movement of people using business as a force for good . Through the power of their collective voice, one day all companies will compete to be best for the world , and society will enjoy more shared and durable prosperity for all.”

Circles USA has also developed its talking points, which follow, about the intersection of reducing poverty in the emerging economy. We cannot reduce poverty rates without understanding where the economy is heading. There are clear indications that the nature of work is changing, placing new demands on people to be their own contractors rather than counting on a traditional job. For the time being, there is a major opportunity for people to prepare for and secure middle-skill jobs that employers are struggling to fill. We make it too hard for people to take jobs and leave subsidy programs because of the Cliff Effect that decreases subsidies faster than income can replace these basic expenses.

1. The New On-Demand, 1099 Economy

Companies can generate more wealth with fewer workers than ever before. They are rapidly shedding U.S. blue-collar jobs through automation, artificial intelligence, and globalization. More of the working poor no longer enjoy the security of being on a company’s payroll (w2 jobs ) and must take more temporary jobs, now being described as on-demand or 1099 jobs. While this change can be exciting for middle-income and upper-income people, the working poor and those leaving welfare will need relationship programs such as Circles USA to help them navigate this new environment.

2. The Middle-Skill Gap

Baby boomers are leaving the workforce in massive numbers. However, increasing numbers of younger people are unqualified for today’s workforce, creating a temporary crisis in filling middle-skill jobs (high-school graduation required but not a college degree). We are making the argument that solving poverty is no longer just a humanitarian cause. It is an economic imperative. Circles USA understands what it takes for people with backgrounds in poverty to make it in the workplace. And we know how to recruit and train Allies to provide much-needed support both inside and outside the workplace.

3. The Phantom Workforce

Many employers are struggling to find enough qualified workers to fill their job demands. In communities with higher poverty rates than the norm, it can be difficult to attract new talent from other places. People associate high poverty rates with more crime, weak schools, and aging infrastructure, among other undesirable community conditions. Employers must mine their own local talent from the unqualified labor pool. In other words, if employers want to grow their businesses and need more qualified workers, they must work in new ways to increase the qualified local workforce.

There is an untapped “phantom workforce”—people who should work, want to work, could work, but won’t or can’t– because of the cliff effect and the lack of comprehensive programs that support people through the entire process. The phantom workforce will resist entry- and middle-skill work opportunities until the government eliminates the cliff effect in benefit programs. The cliff effect occurs when assistance programs such as childcare subsidies and Medicaid remove benefits faster than people can earn enough income to replace them. By not pro-rating the exit ramp from these programs, the government creates a financial crisis for workers as they earn more income.

Circles USA is collaborating with organizations across the country to educate policymakers on the urgency and benefits of eliminating the cliff effect. We have built cliff effect calculators to beta test this impact. Cliff effect calculators give people the information they need to understand how increased income will affect their overall spending power as they leave benefit programs. These calculators also educate policymakers about the disincentives and harm caused by programs that do not have pro-rated exit ramps.

From the book: Enough Money, Meaning & Friends ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.

Q&A with Vince Gonzales, Board Chair of Circles USA

To refresh Circles USA’s vision for the future, we’ve been collecting stories from our members and partners. Here we share reflections written by Vince Gonzales.

How did you come to the work of poverty alleviation?

I grew up in a family who valued community service. When I became a member of the “over 50” club, I decided that it was time to give back to the community (Albuquerque, New Mexico) that had given me so much in regard to my professional IT career, raising two sons, and meeting the love of my life. My search for ways to accomplish this led to Circles. First, I volunteered to be Circles USA’s sole software developer for the Cliff Effect Planning Tool and then I was invited to join the Board of Directors.

Tell us about one moment that shaped your commitment to ending poverty.

In any volunteer work, I ask myself, “Am I making a difference? Are we making a difference?” In October 2017, I attended a strategy meeting in Grand Rapids, MI. When that meeting ended for the day, I stayed for the local Big View meeting. As attendees began showing up, my attention was drawn toward a mom and her three children: they walked in and lit up the room with their smiles and enthusiasm. They were introduced to me as a Circle Leader family. As I watched other folks arrive, I noticed a man in a suit stop in the doorway. Next thing, I hear a small voice, a child’s voice, from the other side of the room yelling, “You’re here! You’re here!” The eldest daughter, about ten years old, ran to the man in the doorway. When she reached him, she jumped into his open arms. This man was her family’s Circles Ally. With my eyes welling up and my heart overflowing with love, I exclaimed to myself, “This is the difference we can make. This is the difference I can make!”

What breaks your heart about poverty?

In March of 2011, I was in Washington D.C. with my wife’s family. As we toured the city on our way to Capitol Hill, we drove a few blocks from the White House. This vivid image is still in my memory: seeing homeless people living on the street with the White House clearly visible in the background. The War on Poverty was declared by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Fifty-five years later, and this is the scene only blocks from the home of our country’s leader; it’s heartbreaking.

What motivates you to continue seeking change?

Humans have a long history of coming up with ingenious ways to survive, such as vaccines for polio and smallpox. Humans have made amazing strides in technology to live “better” lives, from the steam engine to the iPhone. Now we must arrive at an understanding that our survival and desire for a better life depends on “We the People” for every human on this earth. The current political and social climates in our country will continue to raise everyone’s consciousness around how we rely on each other for health and wealth. In my lifetime, I hope to see a greater reduction of poverty for even more people.

How did you get involved with Circles USA?

Inspired by family values and my commitment to the youth in my community experiencing poverty, I began to investigate innovative ways to address poverty. I came across a book by CUSA Founder Scott Miller, The Circles Story, and I was intrigued immediately! The Circles model creates relationships between those experiencing poverty and those who are not. It offers a way to provide a loving “nudge” to someone who wants to work their way out of poverty but cannot see the opportunity or does not yet possess the skills to do so.

I met Scott in Albuquerque and he told me about some IT needs that Circles had at the time with its database and its concept for a Cliff Effect Planning Tool, and so I decided to offer my time, treasure, and talents. My IT work for Circles continued, but my heart wanted more. “I am not just an IT guy,” my heart said. I felt drawn to leadership, and that’s led to the position of Board Chair. I am excited to be serving at this level, along with my fellow board members and staff, to focus on eradicating the conditions of poverty.

What are you currently working on?

As Circles USA’s Board Chair, I’m designing plans to recruit future Board members. I care about expanding the Board to reflect those we serve and the people who volunteer their time toward our mission. This is work that must be approached carefully so as not to have “diversity for diversity’s sake” but rather to have diversity because it is the right thing to do. We are seeking those best suited to serve on the Board because of their passion, attitude, and aptitude for our mission.

What’s most meaningful to you about Circles?

Circles is about family and community. I like to remind my colleagues on the Board that we are people first: we share our New and Goods along with our not so goods, bringing our whole selves to the table. I am proud of how everyone involved in Circles collaborates. We build friendships between Circle Leaders working their way out of poverty and volunteer Allies. We also work at the legislative level, speaking to officials on both sides of the aisle. It’s inspiring to be focused on ending poverty and building thriving communities.

~ Vince Gonzales, Board Chair of Circles USA and IT Director of Perinatal Associates of New Mexico (Albuquerque, NM)


Four of Four: Common Responses to Poverty

The call to adventure to address poverty typically comes in one of these four ways:

    1. Provide private, limited charity to deserving, needy people as prescribed by my faith.
    2. Mentor someone poor who wants to learn how to not be poor anymore.
    3. Directly hire the poor.
    4. Support any policy that would eliminate subsidies that ultimately enable the poor to stay poor.

What’s wrong with solution No. 4: Dismantling subsidy programs?

Finally, the idea of simply dismantling subsidy programs in an effort to stop enabling people to stay in poverty is promoted as the ultimate quick fix to dependency. Unfortunately, as compelling as this might sound to conservative ears, reducing poverty is more complicated.

Let’s review the key causative factors of poverty that emanate from each of the six major sectors of society—business, government, education, human services, civic and faith, and philanthropy—and what their call to adventure for reducing poverty rates might be.

When I contemplate how well our nation is doing compared to other nations, I look at global metrics that go beyond a simple GDP number. In the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is defined as a fundamental right, as long as you don’t do anything illegal or violate the rights of others. Using this fundamental right as the main metric, how is the United States doing?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a group of 34-member countries that discusses and develops economic and social policy. OECD members are democratic countries that support free-market economies. Their first World Happiness Report was published in April 2012 in support of the United Nations high level meeting on happiness and well-being. Since then, OECD members have come to see happiness as the proper measure of social progress and effective public policy.

In June 2016, the OECD committed itself “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts.” The six variables for the index are income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom, and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.

In 2007, the United States ranked third on the happiness index for OECD nations. In 2016, it had dropped to 19th (out of the 34 OECD nations) due to an increase in corruption and a decrease in social safety nets. At the top of the happiness index were the Scandinavians for the opposite reasons. George Lakey, author of Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Rightand How We Can, Too, explains in an easy-to understand manner how the Nordic nations emerged at the top of the Happiness Index, as well as in these other important categories: freedom of the press (measured by Freedom House, the United States ranked 26th); best place to grow old as measured by Global Watch Index; and life satisfaction as measured by OECD.

The OECD also does poverty rate comparisons across the 34 nations. Iceland ranked No. 1 with the lowest poverty rate, followed by Denmark, Czech Republic, Finland, and Norway. In the No. 30 spot was the United States, followed by Israel, Brazil, Costa Rica, and China. I don’t know about your reaction to this list, but my mind jumped off the rails when I read it.

Most people in the United States know, and perhaps take pride in the fact that our GDP is $18.56 trillion, far and above second-ranked China at $11.39 trillion, and third-ranked Japan at $4.73 trillion. Our per capita income ranks fourth, behind Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland, according to OECD data. It’s interesting to note that overall GDP does not correlate positively with lower poverty rates or higher happiness indexes.

Being a wealthier nation also does not translate into being safer. According to Nation Master, China is ranked 12th out of 189 nations for highest homicide rates, and the United States is ranked 14th. In other words, you are less likely to be slain in 175 other nations than in the United States.

Wealth disparity is running twice as high and broad in the United States as in any other industrialized nation. The top 5% own more than 90 times the wealth of the median household. In the second-ranking nation, the top 5 % in the Netherlands owns 42 times the wealth of the median household. What is the factor for the happiest place on the globe, Norway? Twelve times. Is there a correlation between a national value of equity and happiness, lower poverty rates, higher productivity?

As Lakey says in book, Viking Economics,

Like most Americans today, Norwegians a century ago didn’t like the results of a wealth gap: the hunger and poverty, the crime, elderly friends warehoused or left in isolation, young people without hope of a good job. Norwegians also didn’t like the attitudes that went with inequality: an inclination toward arrogance among higher-income people and the feeling among lower-income people that they were losers, defeated by the system.

The Nordic model has been promoted by many in the United States who want to see more equity and less poverty. It has been demonized by others who feel strongly about the free-market system and limited government. The polarity between right and left media, politics, and arguments within one’s own family has accelerated as more people find themselves unable to participate in the American Dream.

Learn more: Transformational Leadership: A Framework to End Poverty ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.

Three of Four: Common Responses to Poverty

The call to adventure to address poverty typically comes in one of these four ways:

    1. Provide private, limited charity to deserving, needy people as prescribed by my faith.
    2. Mentor someone poor who wants to learn how to not be poor anymore.
    3. Directly hire the poor.
    4. Support any policy that would eliminate subsidies that ultimately enable the poor to stay poor.

What’s wrong with solution No. 3: Directly hiring the poor?

Nothing, as long as employers have at least a higher-than-normal poverty IQ. We often hear, I gave them a job, and they didn’t show up on time, in uniform, with a smile, ready to work. They were ungrateful, unreliable, and my business suffered for trying to be helpful. Again, the Drama Triangle is in play. We are giving people what they want and need, but they are blowing it.

There are a couple of new economic realities that make strategy No. 3 something that employers must undertake if they are to sustain and grow their businesses. In the book When the Boomers Bail, my friend and colleague Mark Lautman shows clearly how the massive exodus of aging baby boomers from the workforce now forces employers to mine the talents of their “unqualified workforce” to fill jobs. When there were plenty of job candidates, communities and their employers could manage a consistent level of poverty because there were plenty of others to hire, and the economy could handle the costs of carrying a percent of dependents without much burden on the tax base.

In communities that now suffer from slowing economic development efforts through which they are unable to bring many new jobs to town, there is enormous pressure to increase the number of qualified workers and to reduce the tax burden of dependents in poverty. This forced call to adventure is a great opportunity for communities to finally see that solving poverty is not just a humanitarian effort—it has become an economic development imperative.

Stanford University published a case study about Cascade Engineering, a business in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that found success with an innovative approach to hiring people from welfare. I had the opportunity to visit them and speak with owner Fred Keller about his insights into what it takes to successfully employ, retain, and advance the poor:

    1. An accepting organizational culture.
    2. Education, not only of new employees but also of existing employees, about what it means to be in poverty.
    3. A strong system of support for people moving from poverty into careers.

The results? Keller and his company improved their welfare-to-work program results from a 29% retention rate per year to over 90%.

Fred is now one of the investors of our Circles USA chapter in Grand Rapids. He sees the value of building long-term relationships between those who need jobs and those who can support people in finding, keeping, and advancing in those jobs over time.

A final post will walk through the 4th common response to poverty next time.

Learn more: Transformational Leadership: A Framework to End Poverty ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.

Two of Four: Common Responses to Poverty

The call to adventure to address poverty typically comes in one of these four ways:

    1. Provide private, limited charity to deserving, needy people as prescribed by my faith.
    2. Mentor someone poor who wants to learn how to not be poor anymore.
    3. Directly hire the poor.
    4. Support any policy that would eliminate subsidies that ultimately enable the poor to stay poor.

What’s wrong with solution No. 2: Mentoring the poor?

The problem with the second solution, mentoring the poor, is that it begins with the assumption that people with middle-income and upper-income means and backgrounds know enough about the experience of poverty to tell people in poverty how to effectively address the challenges of being poor in our nation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

People in poverty must inform all the decisions that go into making their own personal plan, as well as the development of community and government programs that are designed to “support the poor.” Without the wisdom of such a partnership, middle-income and upper-income folks fail with spectacular consistency as evidenced by an unchanged poverty rate for decades and decades of well-intentioned government and charity efforts. The result of these failures, unfortunately, is often to simply blame the poor:

“We have great anti-poverty programs; we just need better poor people.”

The first person I ever tried to help out of poverty resisted my first 38 great ideas to fix her. The more enthusiastic I was to find a way to fix her, the less willing she was to invest her time in interacting with me. I wanted her to take my advice and get out of poverty. Our relationship ended immediately and for good reasons. I had a low poverty IQ, unrealistic expectations, no support system to determine how best to be of assistance, and a worldview that she definitely did not share. Life did not look like endless opportunities for the taking to her. It looked hostile, disappointing, and dangerous. Her everyday challenge was one of survival. Mine was a search for more meaning through making a difference to another. I was willing, just sadly uninformed.

Follow-up posts will walk through common responses to poverty 3 and 4…stay tuned for more.

Learn more: Transformational Leadership: A Framework to End Poverty ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.

One of Four: Common Responses to Poverty

The call to adventure to address poverty typically comes in one of these four ways:

    1. Provide private, limited charity to deserving, needy people as prescribed by my faith.
    2. Mentor someone poor who wants to learn how to not be poor anymore.
    3. Directly hire the poor.
    4. Support any policy that would eliminate subsidies that ultimately enable the poor to stay poor.

What’s wrong with solution No. 1: Provide private, limited charity to the deserving poor?

Nothing is wrong with charity per se. Expecting that it will solve the long-term problem of someone experiencing poverty is the problem. The major issue with charity is that most people expect it to solve the underlying problem, which typically backfires because of a dynamic identified by Dr. Stephen Karpman as the “Drama Triangle.” My first job in the “anti-poverty” field was to meet with up to 40 people a week who were coming in asking for handout of $50 to $100. In 15-minute interviews, it was impossible to discern whether the financial assistance would help or hinder in the long run. Furthermore, I had no place to refer people so they could address the underlying reasons for being in poverty. It was this experience with charity that eventually led me to the development of Circles USA.

When the call is that of charity, we are compelled to see someone as a “deserving victim” who can be rescued, at least in this moment, with a quick fix of some sort. We do not engage with the complexity of the situation, instead prescribing the fix(es): Let me give you some food, a check, gasoline, or a referral to someone else who can help some more. I might be involved with a program that can help you get a job, repair your car, be a better planner, manage your budget, etc. Our unwillingness and often inability to acknowledge that poverty is complex for both internal and external reasons leads us down a path of disillusionment when our help doesn’t seem to add up to a long-term result. We might begin to harbor feelings of resentment toward the person who refused to be fixed through our “wise counsel” and best intentions.

Persecutor: Appears controlling, critical, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior.

Rescuer: Needs to be needed. Enables others to remain dependent and gives them permission to fail; rescuing helps rescuers avoid facing their own issues.

Victim: Appears oppressed, helpless, powerless, ashamed—finding it difficult to make decisions or solve problems.

The Drama Triangle addresses individuals’ perceptions as they shift back and forth between roles. The drama persists when it fulfills some unmet need for individuals to continue in conflict in lieu of addressing the real issues, identifying solutions, and taking action.

Books such as Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts have become popular study group material in faith communities as they examine their own experiences on the Drama Triangle. Circles USA is attractive to faith communities because they see it as a structured and safe program through which to build long-term relationships of mutual respect that begin to address the underlying problems of poverty. We call the participants in Circles USA who are working their way out of poverty Circle Leaders in order to reinforce the idea that they will make their own plans to move out of poverty and tell others how they would like to be supported. It puts the rescuer impulse on its head.

Follow-up posts will walk through common responses to poverty 2, 3, and 4…stay tuned for more.

Learn more: Transformational Leadership: A Framework to End Poverty ~ By Scott C. Miller

To learn more about Scott Miller, please see his website here.