Category Archives: Featured

Circles USA cited as a high-impact approach by the Director of the Office of Family Assistance, US Health and Human Services

Clarence H. Carter,  the director of the Office of Family Assistance and the acting director of the Office of Community Services at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, wrote a blog post titled “Strong social networks help to eliminate barriers to economic opportunity” speaking on how Circles USA and Open Table aim to boost the social capital of individuals in order to help them work toward self-sufficiency. Read about it here

Circles USA in Marshall, MN, offers crisis management, education, job placement and social networking to economically disadvantaged and underserved communities.

 

Systems-Thinking and Continuous Quality Improvement

Poverty and many societal problems faced today in the United States and around the globe are complex and interconnected. For example, children living in poverty are at greater risk for poor academic performance and retention; abuse and neglect; and behavioral, socio-emotional, and physical health problems (1). As we know, the challenges faced by individuals and families living in poverty rarely arise individually. And yet, our institutions and programs historically were designed to address a specific need or limited subset of poverty-related challenges. This approach has resulted in a collection of siloed poverty management programs instead of a true poverty reduction system.

Furthermore, change is a natural phenomenon we experience daily. Many of us can still remember when phones were tethered to the wall and mobility while on the phone was limited to the length of a telephone cord. We, as consumers, rapidly change our preferences, demanding increased technological innovation in support of improving the effectiveness or efficiency of our activities of daily living. The ongoing pressure for technological innovation, in consequence, drives global competition, transforming local economies and the nature of available jobs. In a world of complexity and constant change, linear thinking is insufficient.

Systems thinking is a foundational requirement for transformational leadership. Systems thinking is based on theory and methods used to optimize the performance of any collection of objects (e.g., in nature, society, or science) that are interdependent and work together to produce an outcome or result.(2) Optimization in systems thinking generally focuses on increasing the efficiency and/or effectiveness of a system in pursuit of a specific outcome or goal (e.g., reducing child poverty by 10% and having families reach 200% of the Federal Poverty Levels).

Systems theory explicitly acknowledges that perfect performance at the system level is unobtainable. Our goal, therefore, should be the creation of a learning system that is continually working to improve. System thinking, when more broadly viewed as a philosophy, can lead positive disruption towards changing the culture of an organization or system. Peter Senge described a learning organization as one “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” (3)

In the Poverty Reduction Lab program, participants receive training and coaching to become adept at applying Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) principals, methods, and tools. CQI, as a discipline, is fundamentally grounded in systems theory and the principles of creating a learning organization.

W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer, is one of the fathers of systems thinking and its application to continual improvement of quality in industrial systems. His early work, starting in 1950 in Japan, is credited as a primary driver of Japan’s post-World War II industrial recovery. His work directly contributed to Japan becoming a world economic power. (4) As an engineer, Deming focused on manufacturing applications. Today, CQI principles and methods are standard practice in industry. CQI methods and tools are used to ensure planes take off and land safely, our food and medicines are safe, and a size 12 pair of women’s slacks has a consistent waist circumference (OK, maybe more work is needed for that last one!).

CQI, as a discipline and management philosophy, has also broadly been adopted by service organizations, including in the fields of education, healthcare, and public health. Consequently, there is a strong evidence base in support of the benefits of creating a culture of quality and applying CQI methods and tools to optimize system efficiency and effectiveness. However, CQI might be a relatively new concept for public agencies and nonprofit organizations, at least as compared to the decades of experience in industry and healthcare. For many public and nonprofit organizations, the introduction to CQI arrives when a desired funding source requires it as a condition of receiving a grant or other financial award.

As staunch advocates for the transformative power of systems thinking and the discipline of CQI, CQIU (5) is consulting with Circles USA on Poverty Reduction Labs and other initiatives. Our goal, with you and other regional partners, is the development of a coherent, continually improving, poverty reduction system. CQIU has a combined total of more than 30 years of experience in supporting healthcare and social care organizations and networks begin the journey of culture change and implementation of CQI methods and tools.

Today’s problems are often yesterday’s solutions.

— Peter Senge

By focusing on events, we become reactive, seeing only the tip of the iceberg.(6) Instead, systems thinking leads us to transform our mental models and redesign underlying systematic structures. This change in mind-set and approach can then be leveraged to optimize a system, even when the system is immersed in a dynamic, seemingly chaotic, environment or seems intractably broken.

In practical application, systems theory can be applied at many levels. You, yourself, reside in a system, interconnected to others through work, home, family, friends, and the religious, civic, and social organizations in which you belong and participate. By examining your life as a system, you can more efficiently and effectively work toward having a happy, balanced life that follows your values and meets your goals, simultaneous to and in alignment with the development of a poverty reduction system in your community or region.

Darcey Terris Founder and Principal Consultant of CQIU Quality Work. Quality Life.

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

The program’s focus includes:

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

To stay tuned, sign-up for The Big View Newsletter, our monthly bulletin about poverty research and policy change.

1 “Effects of Poverty, Hunger and Homelessness on Children and Youth,” American Psychological Association, available at: www.apa.org/pi/families/poverty.aspx.

2 Systems theory, as a general area of study, originated in part through the work of an Austrian biologist named Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

3 Source: “The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge,” 1990 (updated in 2010). New York, NY: Random House.

4 Deming is often called the “father of the third wave of the industrial revolution.” The Deming Institute, www.deming.org.

5 CQIU includes the “U” in their name, as CQI is a universal approach that can be applied to address many of the seemingly intractable societal issues that public agencies, nonprofits, and businesses face on a regular basis.

6 Source: Adapted from “The Iceberg Model” by M. Goodman, 2002. Hopkinton, MA: Innovation Associates Organizational Learning.

A Tipping Point to End Poverty

During more than 20 years of speaking to communities throughout the United States and Canada, I have been making the statement that we can and should end poverty. I have never encountered any resistance to the idea that we should end poverty. It’s the “we can end poverty” that causes people to bring up their objections with statements such as, “We have been fighting the War on Poverty over 50 years, and it’s only gotten worse.” But have we really been fighting all these years? I would say no; we haven’t had a national goal to eliminate poverty.

First, the war in Vietnam increasingly distracted the Johnson administration’s focus from the War on Poverty. Some safety nets were implemented, such as the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Social Security Act of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid. However, these safety nets created an array of allopathic remedies. Some would argue these remedies make people too busy with paperwork, getting their basic needs met and lessening the urgency of finding a job. This is a poverty management system.

Furthermore, there are no financial incentives from federal agencies for long-term results of supporting people out of poverty and increasing economic stability. The baby boomers provided such a substantial labor pool that local economies did not need to worry about qualifying those in poverty for the workforce. Without pressure from business, poverty management continues in government and with community-based organizations addressing various needs of small target populations.

My strong belief is that human beings can eradicate the condition of poverty. The challenge is not if we have enough resources to do it – because we have enough. It is not if we know how to make the necessary systemic changes – because we know enough. First and foremost, the challenge is aligning the conviction that we can and should end it.

Because society could be easily overwhelmed by the massive task of ending poverty in the face of realities described above, I have found value in an article by scientists on tipping points. They discovered that when just 10% of a network’s population holds an unshakable belief, the majority of that network of people will adopt that belief. As Boleslaw Szymanski at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has elaborated:

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10%, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority. Once that number grows above 10%, the idea spreads like flame.”

We have all seen in our time social movements that reached a tipping point and fundamentally changed society. How can we intentionally lead in a manner that causes a tipping point in our society? Achieving a tipping point is the goal that focuses Circles USA’s work to inspire and equip leaders to build Poverty Reduction Labs and Circles Chapters to support 10% of households in their communities to climb out of poverty. The theoretical potential of a tipping point is that once 10% is reached, momentum will take over, and the process of reducing poverty will become easier as more people embrace the effort.

Meeting resistance from within our own minds, as well as from those in our communities, we will need to align our intention to be transformational leaders. We need to follow our conviction about ending poverty, no matter what we confront along the way. Otherwise, we will be vulnerable to conforming to the status quo and colluding with a poverty management system that maintains poverty.

The guiding principle for the Transformational Leadership Program is to “become the change you want to see happen.” (“Be the change that you wish to see in the world” has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although Wikiquote attributes the principle to Arleen Lorrance, at the Teleos Institute.) We are each hard-wired to want to make a difference in the world. If you assert the belief that we can support 10% of children out of poverty, you will eventually find others to join you. Together, you can build your own momentum toward a tipping point of people who will mobilize a new poverty reduction system around that goal in your community.

Warm regards,

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

The content for this Blog Series is drawn from the Poverty Reduction Lab program, a collaboration with CQIU. The program’s focus includes:

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

To stay tuned, sign-up for The Big View Newsletter, our monthly bulletin about poverty research and policy change.

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

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

You cannot change the strategy of a community, an organization, or system – without focusing on culture and the beliefs people hold about how things work. Sometimes attributed to the business guru Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is an illustrative warning relevant to all of us working on the elimination of poverty.

At Circles USA, we’ve changed the culture of poverty by tapping the power of a culture of prosperity. Whenever people have an experience that contradicts a negative reality that they have been normalizing, healing occurs. For example, participants in poverty are called Circle Leaders, and they lead the process to achieve their own economic stability. Since a typical experience for those in poverty is to be dismissed and marginalized, there is a powerful healing that occurs through the acknowledgement that they are the poverty experts and must be at the planning table to find real solutions on behalf of the entire community.

The idea of a poverty reduction system is a powerful contradiction to executives who are immersed in the management of requirements for a fragmented and random array of community programs. There is genuine excitement about focusing on how to rearrange work into more clear pathways that actually lead people out of poverty and reduce poverty rates.

As more coherence is created in the sector of human services, we can find opportunities to enlist other sectors in ending poverty. For example, in workforce development, employers can challenge their mindsets about employees with backgrounds in poverty and implement responsive ways to do business in order to be more successful. Teachers can integrate pedagogies for engaging children from homes in poverty. Civic groups can question their hidden biases and rules that make it difficult for those in poverty to feel welcomed. Philanthropic organizations can analyze if their funding practices favor short-term wins at the exclusion of long-term gains. Whatever the challenges, transformational leaders engage crucial conversations that generate more cohesion towards a shared vision of ending poverty.

Are you leading Big View discussions on this topic? Share your perspective with us at Circles@CirclesUSA.org.

The content for this Blog Series is drawn from the Poverty Reduction Lab program, a collaboration with CQIU. The first post, “Can We Believe in Ending Poverty?” can be accessed here. Stay tuned for more about:

  • Dismantling the poverty management system
  • Leading your community through the four stages of change
  • 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

Can We Believe in Ending Poverty?

I was in New York City a few years ago having a conversation with a former United Nations Ambassador about my first book, Until It’s Gone, Ending Poverty in our Nation, in our Lifetime. He asked me several questions about my assumptions regarding the nature of poverty and about my work at Circles USA. After thirty minutes of debate, he revealed what was really behind his questioning, as he said to me, “Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Is ending poverty going against the Bible?”

He’s not alone in this belief. For many in the nation, the biblical reference that “the poor will always be with us” is a strong suggestion that no matter what we do, we will always have poverty. Any attempt to eradicate poverty is a task that has no hope of success. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is to manage poverty or maybe save a few people. But can we believe in ending poverty? Only if we change our mindset.

If one wants to change systems, one must put their energy into “high-impact strategies” that are aimed at changing the mindset that created the organization, or system of organizations. The mindset informs the goals that shape the programs of the organization. To change a system to end poverty requires that the system change its entire culture.

For example, when people don’t believe that the poverty rate can be reduced, let alone eliminated, a poverty management system is created. To change that system, we will have to place resources on affecting the deeper beliefs that are shaping the system’s culture. How can a dominating belief be challenged?

I took the Ambassador’s belief that “the poor will always be with us” to a theologian who works closely with a Circles chapter and discovered that the original teaching is taken out of context. If one googles “the poor will always be with us,” you will find evidence of this confusion, with warnings not to use this statement to discourage social action. Plus, there are many other beliefs in the Bible that provide a positive contradiction.

While this example from Christianity is a useful teaching tool, Circles USA partners with a range of secular and religious organizations. Circles USA’s inclusive, non-partisan community welcomes people from all faiths, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and socio-economic classes. Understanding the beliefs of these diverse community stakeholders is key.

Do you personally believe we can end poverty? What dominant beliefs about poverty did you hear growing up? Share your perspective with us at Circles@CirclesUSA.org.

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
  • 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