The only thing between me and my next mistake was scrap material quilted from dresses Mom made. Read Kristi’s blog here.
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It’s 4am on Monday morning. All week, I wondered what I’d blog about. Ideas came and went, but I knew the whole time I wanted to tell you about tonight. Trouble is, I had to wait until tonight to know what to say.
I’m not going to talk. I’ll let the walls speak for themselves. Watch this video. I promise you won’t regret it.
10 Million Men. Not marching, not working. The Council of Economic Advisers says of the men ages 25-54 who are not currently employed, 83% haven’t had a job in at least a year. That’s only the men. Forbes.com states that in 2016, more than 25% of jobs posted online in the US remain unfilled for over two months. In 2014, Fortune.com reported that unfilled jobs cost the US $160 billion per year.
Helping the poor is not only about being good Samaritans. If we do it right, we keep our companies staffed and in business, so the rest of us can continue working. We shift support to the retiring Baby Boomers who’ve supported us. We reduce violence as people discover their true power. Circles USA recognizes that we can’t leave nearly 68 million Americans dependent on assistance. We need qualified workers, and our people need to know their own worth.
In his Ted Talk, Circles USA CEO Scott Miller laughs about his search for effective ways to help. Early on, his team discovered that the most effective way for someone in poverty to double their household income was to get married. Though it was tempting to run with the data, they chose not to start a dating service. More research proved useful. During the recession in 2008-2009, when the average US income dropped 3%, Circles families were increasing their income up to 88%.
Previously, I mentioned that each Circles USA chapter is formed of up to 25 small circles. Each small circle has a Leader, someone who wants to make their way out of poverty to financial freedom. Completing the circle are Allies, individuals with middle or upper incomes and stable finances, who help the circle Leader think about issues that will need to be overcome in order to meet his or her personal goals.
For every $1 that goes into the process of walking alongside a Circles leader, $2 in welfare savings are returned to the community and at least $4 in income are earned.
With 5.9 million job openings as of July 31, 2016, why are so many Americans jobless or earning too little? I’ve had people tell me about trying to help someone in poverty who seemed unmotivated or refused to take advice. That’s frustrating. How do you help people? The other day, I listened to a Freakonomics interview with two economists who had done massive amounts of research. They both came to the same conclusion:
Yep, that was the answer given by two experts. They’re right. It is complicated, but thankfully it’s not rocket science.
If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a few ideas of your own. Let me see if I can guess them:
Higher Minimum Wage
I believe that some, though not all, of those solutions can help. Scott says that for every 100 families struggling with poverty, there are only 31 affordable houses. Stacy Mitchell, the Ally who gave the interview which generated this blog series, says there are areas of her town where the school buses don’t pick up high schoolers. Forbes says the job market is changing, and the people most in need of employment are unqualified for the best positions. Handing someone keys to a car and house and signing them up for classes don’t seem to be enough, based on the current statistics.
Circles USA leverages diversity, collaboration and commitment to help people transition from, “Nothing ever works out,” to “I love my life!”
It takes trust. People who feel trapped in the cycles of poverty fear judgment or unrealistic expectations. Trust develops slowly, and often people who can’t hold a job or budget properly have emotional or relational skills to acquire. In her multi-video interview, a former Leader who is now a coach at a Circles USA chapter says that when she came to Circles, she was afraid of being seen as a bad mother. “You have to wait,” Rebecca says, “it takes time. Trust is a big deal. You have to wait and let things happen. Be careful of goal pushing, because people under pressure start to justify how bad things are.” The authentic, respectful dialogue that goes on at meal time and during the sessions is good for both Leaders and Allies. Struggles are shared and strengths are celebrated. Successful companies know that when different cultures talk on a regular basis, we build a more flexible economy.
It takes time. Once someone decides to be a Leader, he or she commits to reaching the 200% mark, even if it takes a few years. The goal of every Leader is to end up earning at least 200% of the income of someone at poverty level. Many reach this and continue rising, eventually becoming Allies themselves. Allies stick by their Leaders, helping them discover talents, prepare for the Cliff Effect and deal with crises. Perhaps an Ally’s most important job is to give respect, patient encouragement, a listening ear, and friendship to the Leader. Former Leader Crystal said, “If you’re always around like-minded individuals, you have nothing to strive for. No one can give you different experiences.” In her terrific video, she recalls how hard she used to work, but her hard work was never enough to make ends meet. After completing the program, she states, “I no longer wake up with, ‘Oh, I can’t do this, it’s so rough.’ I wake up with, ‘I can, and I am, and I’m doing, and it’s goooood!’”
It takes a city. Circles volunteers examine the needs of their chapter’s Leaders and build a network of resources in the community. In one spread-out city, lack of transportation was a major hindrance to getting and keeping good jobs. The chapter’s Big View team recognized the need and created a plan. A couple of Allies reached out to mechanics for free pre-purchase inspections, others visited the courthouse to learn how a title could be transferred directly from a donor to a recipient without the expense of going through the chapter. Other Allies located mechanics who would provide inexpensive repairs when needed. One volunteer sent Leaders’ stories periodically to the local media. During the first four years, 168 cars were donated. People pitch in when they see change happening.
It changes the city. Recognizing that those who’ve lived in poverty know its challenges best, Big View teams often invite government and business representatives to attend meetings. In one chapter, they helped six Leaders prepare one-minute speeches. Each told a personal story relating to a specific issue, such as the Cliff Effect, child care or other issues. The group worked with the speakers for several weeks and then hosted an open house. They invited people who were running for office or leading in the community to come and explain how they would address the issues. First, these guests were asked to listen to these six one-minute presentations. The night went so well that the Leaders were given the opportunity to earn $50 by speaking to the state legislature.
There is intelligence, talent, creativity, loyalty, resilience and drive hidden in your town. If you don’t believe me, scroll back up and listen to Rebecca or Crystal. These two former Leaders are well-spoken, money-making businesswomen, and Circles helps men as well. There are Circles USA chapters in 19 states and in Canada, but many more are needed. Visit their website or spend 15 minutes on the Circles USA channel, where Scott will tell you what it takes to start a Circles USA chapter in your community.
5.9 million job openings. We can change this. We can keep our businesses running smoothly, increase our consumer base, reduce our deficit and be good neighbors. We might notice a few new businesses popping up. Once a person starts achieving dreams, why stop?
“I have been poor; I am not poor any more. I am a middle-class person who lives in Centerville, Ohio. I am a working mom; I own my own home; I have two Master’s degrees and my son just graduated high school. I own two cars and have a well-paying job at MetLife.” In the Centerville-Kettering Circles group, Stacy is the only black woman who is an Ally.
For the past two weeks, Stacy Mitchell has been describing Ohio’s Centerville-Kettering chapter of Circles USA. The chapter is home to several circles, and each circle has a Leader who is forging his or her way out of poverty. Two Allies with experience in financial stability complete the circle, asking questions and lending practical help so the Leader makes it out of public assistance and into financial freedom. Click here to read Part 1 or Part 2 of our 4-part series.
Many of the Allies are white men and women. They’re good people with much to share, but Stacy sees a need for more diversity. Leaders are often black women, who need more black female Allies to believe they can thrive. In Stacy, they find someone who is familiar with their cultural background and who has been through the system. She has tried to get friends to volunteer, but people are busy and slow to respond. “It’s a really good organization,” she says. “There’s a community here. Earlier this year, someone committed suicide, and everyone decided to make sure that never happened in this group again. Now we have one night each month where we split into small groups. You don’t sit with your normal group—you pick a number to determine where to go. Ones get together; twos get together; threes, and we start talking. We ask questions that are on a list: What makes you sad; what in your childhood is still frustrating you today? You only have to answer to the point you feel comfortable, but it’s inspired this awesome sense of community.”
Conversations where people of different races, genders and incomes get real and personal? Now that’s a way to break stratification, maybe create trust and social change. Throughout the years we spend in these temporary bodies, God teaches and expands us. Regardless of our economic status, He’s never short on work. We all make decisions based on our upbringing, dependencies, experiences and desires, and sometimes our lives need repair. Both rich and poor have issues and insights to share.
Stacy has convinced me that Circles is the place to be. Leaders and Allies, Big View discussions, breaking down communication barriers… Let’s get practical. How does all this fit into a meeting?
“First, we eat,” Stacy tells me. “And it’s good food, too!” In addition to Allies, there are organization leaders who coordinate volunteers, cooks and supplies. Five churches sponsor this chapter, and food is always the beginning. “One time they had this pork loin with a chipotle glaze on it. It was so good! Someone bought potato salad, and they made green beans to go with it.”
“After we eat, we put away all the tables and arrange the chairs in a large circle. A Circles leader tells everyone what we’re about, and then we go around and share what’s New and Good. We spend so much time in our lives focusing on what’s wrong that we need to take time to think about what’s right. Even if nothing has actually happened that you can say is new and good in your life, you can always say, ‘I’m here.’ That’s a positive thing—you showed up. Really, if you have to force yourself to think of a New and Good every day, then it gets easy.
At that point, we’ve said all good things for about ten minutes, so we get into the night’s agenda. There’s a theme for every week. For example, on the third Tuesday, there’s a Resource Group night. We meet in our Resource Groups and work on something we can do to be a resource. My group is Jobs and Education. Another Tuesday, Allies and Leaders meet. There’s a week for training, a week for questions, and if the month has a fifth Tuesday we have Potluck. That’s a night where we focus on whatever is most needed.”
After the night’s agenda item, we come back to the big circle. We end with Appreciation. One person says something to the person on his or her left, thanks or a compliment. It goes around the circle until everyone has received appreciation.”
Stacy repeats, “It’s a real community. I enjoy being a part of it.” The Allies aren’t just there for the Leaders—they help each other as well. Stacy was at work one day and got a call from another volunteer. The woman is working on a second degree, and yelled at her eight year old son while she was trying to concentrate on writing a paper. She made him cry and called Stacy in tears. Stacy asked, “Do we have to do this homework today?”
“Well, it’s due tonight at midnight. I have a 4.0.”
“Yes, but if you get a 3.9 and don’t make your son cry, which is better?”
“But I have a 4.0.”
“Girl, when you walk across that stage, nobody is going to care about your GPA.” When you’re motivated to go back to school and provide a better life for your son, you don’t want your relationship with him destroyed along the way. I know that girl felt better—I felt better just hearing about it.
Circles USA promotes improvements that are sustainable and healthy. Next week, we’ll talk about what that can mean in your life. For now, test your cultural sensitivity by clicking here. You might look past cultural differences, but understanding them can give you greater impact.
If you’d like to find or start a Circles chapter in your area, click here.
Circles participants talk frequently about the Cliff Effect. As someone inches out of poverty, income eventually exceeds the limit for assistance. Ideally, everyone should work towards financial freedom. Unfortunately, people often lose big chunks of assistance before they are prepared. For example, one mom has a housing subsidy and pays $200 per month in rent. She gets a raise of 20 cents an hour and that $8 per week takes her just over the limit for Section 8. Now, the landlord wants $1000 on the first of the month. That’s only two weeks away. She looks for another place and finds one that’s cheaper. Instead of $1000 per month, she could pay $800, plus one month deposit and moving expenses. In the grocery store checkout, she learns her food stamps were reduced. Losing her cool and leaving her cart, she returns to the car frustrated and ashamed. She’s fallen off the cliff, going from the shaky beginnings of financial stability to a state of emergency. Rocky Mountain PBS recorded the experiences of three single women experiencing the Cliff Effect. Click here to hear their stories.
Last week, my friend Stacy Mitchell was telling us of a kindhearted Leader at a Saturday meeting of Circles. In a Circles USA chapter, Allies with middle to high income jobs offer guidance and practical support to Leaders who design and own their personalized pathway out of poverty. Stacy’s friend would have made a terrific social worker, “But,” she said, “I have a felony.” She had lied on a welfare application to keep from falling off the cliff. This resulted in a felony conviction, which had her thinking there was no hope for a career beyond her current job at a factory. The factory was neither paying the bills nor inspiring ambition. She didn’t know what was out there, but was no longer accepting that this was a permanent state. “You won’t keep a job you hate,” Stacy says, “so we don’t set people up for failure by telling them to go work at a burger joint.” Five people sat around a table with this Leader for two hours, brainstorming with her. Now she’s in a program that will lead to a suitable position, and she is learning things she can use to help others. After all, the Circles USA website says the organization’s goal is “to inspire and equip the nation to end poverty, in our lifetime.”
As the “Guide on the Side,” Stacy tells me Allies work to help Leaders avoid the cliff by locating bridges. “We’re always asking, ‘How do you avoid this? What can we leverage? If your food stamps will be lowered, can we leverage food banks?’ We teach people to grow their own vegetables.”
They also have monthly Big View meetings, where members talk about systemic issues and strategies, in order to make a larger community impact. Stacy says, “A lot of people live in neighborhoods where grocery stores have closed down, so a couple of weeks ago, a gentleman talked to the group about starting a co-op, where the employees own the store, and they have reasonable prices. They’d work with local farmers and suppliers. These are lofty goals, but we also look for right now goals. People come in saying, ‘I’m about to lose my housing today, or I need a bus pass to get to work or school. There are some high schools in Dayton where the school buses don’t run any more. The kids have to get a city bus.” That’s $55 a month per child, and most families have at least two kids. “Those of us in the suburbs, who can afford to drive our kids to school every day don’t think about that. There are very specific issues that most people don’t take into account when they think of fighting poverty.”
I live in Oklahoma, where this year legislators cut the earned income credit up to $312 for families who earn $13,850 and have three or more children. That may not seem like much, but it buys a tank of gas per month, so the parent can keep working. It might buy a bus pass, but buses don’t go far in Oklahoma. In some school districts, teachers have been laid off and the school year has been shortened. This means higher daycare expenses and fewer days with free school bus rides.
I ask Stacy if the meetings get political. “I expected they would,” she says. She was pleasantly surprised when a visiting speaker who ended her presentation with a candidate’s promotional video was soundly rebuked. The group vehemently informed the speaker that theirs is not a vote-mongering mission. Stacy says, “Circles is the bridge between being a Democrat and being a Republican.” In addition to being bipartisan, most Circles groups are set up to be non-religious. The book is based on biblical principles, but Centerville-Kettering is the first faith-based Circles group, openly encouraging prayer and church participation. In the rest of the country, churches hold Circles meetings but avoid promoting spiritual views.
What about social stratification? Someone might envision highly educated, high-earning Allies in white gloves, bending down from high horses to touch the poor. “You need to come to a meeting,” Stacy says. Next week, we’ll visit a Circles meeting.
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“I am two steps away from poverty,” Stacy Mitchell begins. “I have savings. I have a good job, but I’ve been on welfare before and had a hard time taking care of myself and my family. Awhile ago, I wondered why I was going through those things, and God said, “You will help people with this.”
Trading Economics posts results from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the close of August 2016, they reported 7.8 million people in the US unemployed. 2 million of these had been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. 6.1 million people worked part-time, not from choice but because they could not find full-time work. A survey done by Bankrate.com showed that 63% of Americans don’t have the savings they’d need for a $500 emergency.
Stacy has a Master’s degree in Instructional Design. While she was earning her second Master’s in Leadership Development, she raised a teenage son and worked a full-time job. She was tired. I would be, too. But she was really tired. She wasn’t just busy, the stress was making her ill, and she was forced to slow down. It was then that God gave her what might have seemed counterintuitive—another task. “I felt it. I said, ‘Lord, I’m ready to help,’ and that Sunday someone walked up to me after church and said, ‘Go to the Circles meeting at 4:00.’ I never read the bulletin, so I wouldn’t have known about the meeting, but God knew.” Instead of one more demand on her time, Circles has become an outlet, something Stacy is excited to do each week. “When they matched Leaders and Allies, I didn’t know if anyone would want to pair up with me, but two people requested me.”
Circles USA works through community groups to help people exit poverty and create self-supporting, sustainable lives. Each group can host up to 25 participants who are ready to step off the crisis ride and onto solid ground. Each participant goes through training and makes a personalized Economic Stability Plan. After training, he or she becomes the Leader of a circle which contains two Allies like Stacy. She describes an Ally as “The Guide on the Side,” listening and helping the Leader think through and accomplish that personal plan. They lend a hand with the aim of building financial, emotional and social resources that will stabilize the Leader’s life.
“This one girl had a lot of credits toward an accounting degree, but life had gotten in the way. She started school in her twenties, but then her parents had died and her life was turned upside down. She dropped out and struggled to survive. Ten years later, she didn’t even have a computer to apply for school. I took my laptop to a meeting and hooked it into the wifi at the church. I helped her set up an email address and apply for college and financial aid. We got her enrolled before her credits expired.” Stacy found out later the girl had been on the verge of suicide, afraid she’d never get her life together. Now, she’s finishing her degree and laying the foundation for a manageable future.
Small circles also participate in the larger group, where skills and connections abound. “One of the Leaders asked me to come to a Saturday session, which was dedicated to helping Leaders build resumes. She works in a factory and is the sweetest person you’d ever want to meet. Some Allies and I talked to her and asked questions about her likes and dislikes. She enjoys helping people and has great ideas. We said, ‘You need to be in social work.’ She said, ‘I have a felony.’ I’d never have guessed that.”
A felony? What for? How did Circles help? Come back next week and find out.
Meanwhile, are you wondering how much you need in your emergency fund? Is your stable foundation washed away like a sandcastle every time you think it’s solid? Click here for tips from Forbes.