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Scott Miller, Circles USA

Scott Miller talks with coworkers during a meeting.

Edward Linsmeir

Breaking the Poverty Cycle

One day back in the 1980s, Scott Miller visited a homeless shelter. That’s not an uncommon thing to do; thankfully, many people volunteer their time every day at soup kitchens, shelters, and other facilities that serve the homeless.

In Miller’s case, the experience caused him to start asking questions. How, for instance, can people die of poverty in the United States, the richest country on the planet? The questions kept coming, even the hard ones that others might not think to ask: How is it that so much money can be poured into the fight against poverty without significantly moving the needle?

Thus, one day’s visit to a shelter—and the cascade of questions that subsequently cropped up in a mind that had started to obsess on the issue—set Miller on his life’s work. By the time he’d honed in on the specifics of how he would help, one key element had crystalized: Miller didn’t want to just help clients subsist and survive. He wanted to see them move out of poverty. For good.

“When you have a system of organizations that are in the business of managing poverty rather than getting people out,” he says, “you just get more poverty.”

That point of view is what drove Miller to eventually found Circles USA. And it’s also why the goal for every one of Circles USA clients is both tangible and aggressive. No, the program is not simply about finding employment or an apartment. Circles USA is centered on a simple math calculation that, if achieved, can catapult a person to stability: 200 percent of the poverty line. At least. That’s because Miller would never want to put limitations on an individual.

Emblematic of Circles USA’s philosophy of empowerment, the organization enables client success via the same means all people achieve it: through relationships. Participants build social capital by engaging with volunteer mentors, connecting with peers who are on the same journey, and linking up with the existing system of social support—all components that enhance well-being.

The approach is yielding results and enabling new starts for an ever-growing number of people, with Circles USA having established a presence in more than 70 communities across the U.S. and Canada. A recent report found that in 2016, over 1,200 program participants increased their income by 63 percent and that for those participating in Circles USA’s 18-month program, unemployment was reduced by an impressive 44 percent.

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