Tag Archives: Circles

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

AARP Well-Being Champion, Scott Miller

End PovertyI am honored to be named by the AARP Public Policy Institute, along with 9 other community leaders (all of whom are 50+), as an AARP Well-Being Champion. AARP is showcasing the impact Circles USA  has had in building a “Culture of Health” in America’s communities. Today, 10/25/18, AARP launched the Website and social media (Twitter & Facebook) campaigns promoting the Circles model which fosters well-being and economic stability. To learn more, read the AARP booklet outlining the programs and work of the 10 champions of change in 2018. 



Circles on NPR: A ‘Circle’ Of Support…

A ‘Circle’ Of Support Helps Families Stay Out Of Poverty – Click the player for audio.



Click image for larger view.

Go around the country and you’ll hear lots of frustration about just how difficult it is to get out of poverty — and more importantly, how to stay out. The official U.S. poverty rate may have gone down to 14.5 percent in 2013 according to new numbers out Tuesday, but still more than 45 million were poor.

Employment is up, but many Americans still lack jobs that pay enough to meet basic needs. This has some people questioning whether current anti-poverty programs are doing enough.

circlesCara Russo, 34, of Gettysburg, Pa., is raising two daughters, ages 15 and 9, and until recently, could have been the poster child for one of the largest groups of poor Americans — single women with children. According to the new poverty figures, 30.6 percent of such families are poor.

Russo no longer lives below the poverty line, which is less than $19,000 a year for a family of three. But she still struggles. She says the biggest challenge isn’t being in poverty, but finding the way out. In the past, she has worked two jobs in an effort to earn enough.

“I’m thinking to myself, you know, this is ridiculous. I’m doing all the right things. I’m working two jobs. I’m taking care of two kids. Why isn’t this getting any easier? Why is this getting harder?” she says. “You’d feel like you’d get a step ahead, and you’d really be 10 steps behind.”

It’s a complaint you hear again and again. The more Russo earned, the less she seemed to have. Food stamps, housing, day care assistance, health care — everything that had kept her afloat when she was barely scraping by as a waitress began to disappear as she worked her way up the ladder.

“She lost all of her benefits and would have about $40 per month to spend on food for her family. It was horrible to watch,” says Megan Shreve, executive director of South Central Community Action Programs, a nonprofit social service agency in Gettysburg. Fortunately for Russo, Shreve was also frustrated when she came back to her job after four years in the private sector.

“The same people were in the same rooms talking about the same issues they were when I left. No one was getting out of poverty. We were doing more with less. Like, you look at that and you know that at some point this will break,” Shreve says. “So we started looking around to figure out what was really getting people out of poverty.”

That’s when Shreve came across a program called Circles, now in 23 states. It works like this: A poor family is matched up with three or four middle-class volunteers called “allies.” They promise to help the family become self-sufficient, with everything from budgeting advice, to help navigating bureaucracy, to just being friends. It’s a lot of hand-holding.

Russo was one of the first in the Gettysburg program.

“It wasn’t like they were giving me anything to be there except for the strength to be able move to the next week,” Russo says.

And she did that week after week after week. Her allies helped her even at times picking her kids up from day care. They also created a community food program to help those like Russo who earn too much for food stamps but not enough to eat.

Seven years later, Russo is a restaurant manager earning $55,000 a year. Now she’s a middle-class ally for another family trying to climb out of poverty.


Click image for larger view.

Russo and two other women have been matched with Sharon Madrigal, a mother of three. At one of their weekly get-togethers, the families help Madrigal write down the pros and cons of job offers she’s just received — as a nursing assistant and as a part-time teacher’s aide.

Russo knows that just getting a job isn’t enough. She works 65 hours a week — which isn’t easy raising a family. She asks Madrigal if she’s thought about day care for her son.

“Have you checked out any availability for anybody to watch him? Do you have friends or family?” she asks Madrigal.

If all goes according to plan, Russo will still be at Madrigal’s side a year from now, even longer.

Studies show that Circles participants have seen their incomes double, even triple. But with so many poor people, Shreve admits it’s a drop in the bucket. She’s encouraged, though, that this and other more holistic approaches to fighting poverty are attracting attention. She says most current anti-poverty programs do help, but only so much.

“You’re spending a great deal of money putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds and then turning and walking away,” she says.

Even though, she says, it’s clear from numbers like those released on Tuesday that people need something more.

Originally posted by npr.org, Sept. 16, 2014.

Be sure to share your thoughts with us and, if you tweet, please include #CirclesUSA.