Trading Learned Helplessness for Hope

Posted: Apr 21, 2014 12:01 AM
Trading Learned Helplessness for Hope

Since President Johnson launched the war on poverty, government has spent trillions, poverty remains, and more and more Americans are increasingly dependent on government support. Hope and opportunity have given way to learned helplessness. Ronald Reagan asserted, “Welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.” America should be judged not by how many citizens are receiving welfare, but by how many no longer need it.

Liberals and conservatives can disagree on the causes and the effectiveness of government programs, but we ought to find common ground in supporting proven local programs that help people find their way out of poverty.

Circles® USA ( is a proven community program that's committed to ending poverty one person, one family at a time. Since people in poverty need to be in charge of their own lives, each Circles Class brings together 25 low-income "Circle Leaders." These low-income participants are paired with trained middle-to-high-income community volunteers, called Allies. Together, they develop financial, emotional, and social resources, as well as an Economic Stability Plan tailored to the unique needs and dreams of each Circle Leader.

The Circle groups nurture relationships and help participants develop coping strategies, appropriate formal language skills, and survival strategies to master the hidden rules that lead to workplace success. Community members provide time, talent and money to help participants help themselves. This is no quick fix. Families in poverty are encouraged to participate for up to 18 months.

While less than 2% make it out of generational poverty on their own, a study of 1,000 Circle participants over 5 years found that 67% were successful in breaking the hold of poverty in their lives. The first Circle® USA program in Southern California is starting in the Conejo Valley.

Circles Coordinator Kristin Youngman at Lutheran Social Services in Thousand Oaks is enthusiastic: "Starting our Circles campaign here is all about inspiring and empowering families and communities to resolve poverty and thrive. It's about helping families achieve economic stability with the consistent help of their peers and committed community volunteers. The early response in our area has been exciting, and we're ready to make a difference."

The mutual respect and relationships established between the Circle Leaders and the allies is a tribute to the power of community in dealing with poverty.

Another contributing factor in long-term poverty is the incarceration of so many young men. A 2013 study in the journal ‘Crime & Delinquency’ found that by the age of 23, 49% of black men and 44% of Hispanic males in the U.S. have been arrested. Once those incarcerated have served their time, they continue to pay a price. With a criminal record, it's very difficult to get good jobs, rent an apartment, or get loans. There's a desperate need for a second chance.

In 2004, Hawaii's First Circuit Judge Steven Alm launched HOPE Probation ( to reduce probation violations and recidivism while helping offenders succeed. This high-intensity supervision program provides probationers with swift, predictable, and proportional sanctions for each detected violation. If they screw up and turn themselves in, it's a few days in jail. If authorities have to find them, it can be a month. If violations are frequent, they'll go back for years.

Why have over 2000 HOPE probationers been successful? It's because HOPE Probation balances consistent accountability with strong support. Although success depends on their choices, probationers are welcomed and assured that the program wants them to succeed. Probationers are helped in finding jobs and are given a chance to prove their worth. This program saves money and saves lives! It deserves to spread.

Locking individuals in an underclass society where government dependence or crime are the best ways to get beyond minimum wage is no way to keep America strong. Americans of all political persuasions need to work together locally to inspire and equip those in their midst to break the hold of poverty on their lives.