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.” The model is based on the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. 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. If you missed last week’s introduction to Circles, click here.
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