Post Gazette: “Circles Pittsburgh seeks to tackle poverty”

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Billions of dollars over decades have failed to reduce poverty significantly in the United States. Some progress has been made since President Lyndon Johnson’s tenure, but his war on poverty clearly has not been won.

Circles USA grew from one man’s conviction that money and programs alone cannot unmire people from the cyclical rut of poverty.

Since the mid 1990s, Scott Miller, formerly of the North Hills, has worked on a strategy many believe promises an enduring solution: long-term relationships that bridge race and class to help the poor build social capital and learn how to break the cycle. The idea is to plug the poor into the kinds of informal networks and strategies that have long propelled people to prosperity.

A network of local organizations has seized on this method to create Circles Greater Pittsburgh.

Circles USA, with headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M., has 80 sites. Pittsburgh is its only multi-site chapter.

“It’s ambitious for a startup, but they have a model that should work well in Pittsburgh,” said Mr. Miller, who has experience in organizational behavior, financial consulting and social work.

Circles Pittsburgh began small, when Ted Melnyk, East Liberty Development’s director of family, community and social equity, proposed starting a group in East Liberty.

“I discovered the model and got pretty excited about it,” he said. When East Liberty Development piqued the Heinz Endowments’ interest in seed funding it, the foundation told him, ‘If it’s as great as you say, it should go citywide.’ ”

The Heinz Endowments has granted about $150,000, said Eric Stoller, its program director. “We are going to ask the board to substantially increase that investment, to invest a multi-year grant of support” so Circles Pittsburgh can become strong enough to attract wider investment, “corporate, philanthropic and government,” he said.

“Getting out of generational poverty is a herculean effort. Circles recognizes it doesn’t happen without intensive and intentional relationships. [It has] a track record and encouraging success for work that is so hard and so often fails.“

According to Circles USA’s website, participants who completed the 18-month program on average increased their income by 27 percent and their cash assets by 88 percent.

Circles Greater Pittsburgh is being incubated at East Liberty Development with full funding the first year and tapered funding the next two years.

“We’re trying to create a chapter with multiple sites,” East Liberty being the hub, said Mr. Melnyk, who took a national training course to lead Circles Pittsburgh. “The basic idea is to create relationships that would probably not otherwise happen.”

It is fledging as organizers from churches, community groups, social service agencies and nonprofits form the framework and recruit participants. Training for 20 circle leaders (those in poverty) begins Sept. 23; allies (their support system) will start training in December.

Each leader has two or three allies to make a circle, and that has further support from a group such as a church congregation that offers its basement for their meetings and dinner and child care that night.

“You can’t just be poor” to qualify, said the Rev. Tom Parkinson, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church of Fox Chapel, whose outreach ministry center in Sharpsburg is a Circle Pittsburgh site. “You have to be poor, out of crisis and motivated, and we have people in our congregation who are excited about being allies.”

A person who wants and has the capacity to get out of poverty completes 3.5 months of training that mimics other workforce development curricula but includes “learning behaviors that are the hidden code of the middle class,” said Nick Cotter, a former AmeriCorps worker who plans to start a circle in Knoxville.

After the training, the candidate is assessed for moving forward. If she does, she becomes a circle leader. That wording was chosen to reverse the idea that the poor need to be led.

The system has allies, whose training focuses on “dispelling class and racial stereotypes and deconstructing belief systems, such as that all people need to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” Mr. Cotter said. “That is not real world.”

Mr. Melnyk said the organizers want a racial mix of leaders and allies and some veterans. The circle relationships officially last 18 months. A circle leader’s success is measured when he is stable for at least two years after the circle term and has increased his income by at least double the federal poverty line. Poverty is defined as $23,850 for a family of four.

Mr. Cotter said he recognized in the Circles structure the dynamics of his own low-income childhood in Brookline. He likened its stability to the traction a middle-class friend can provide an impoverished child.

“Brookline is a tight-knit community with baseball teams and role models, so there was motivational and emotional support around me. If you’re only networking with poor people, they can’t help you any more than you can help them, but if poor people interact with more well-off people, those people know people.” Knowing someone is the way many in the middle class move up.

A former AmeriCorps worker, Mr. Cotter said Knoxville is a good site because 30 percent of its population lives below the federal poverty line and is fairly racially balanced.

Circles is not about selling the picket-fence American dream, he said. “I want out; I don’t care what it looks like. I want to make enough money so I can talk about achievement instead of survival.”

Besides East Liberty Development and Faith United Methodist, Circle Pittsburgh’s organizers include the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, Repair the World Pittsburgh, CARE Ownership and the Open Hand Ministry, whose staff is interviewing potential circle leaders for training.

“With 60,000 people [in greater Pittsburgh] in poverty, our goal is to reach 10 percent,” Mr. Melnyk said. “At 6,000 people, that’s a lot of circles.”

You can read the full article from the Post Gazette here.

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