Social Capital Curbs Poverty

In 2019, dozens of participants in the Circles initiative at Community Action Services and Food Bank made multiple strides to reaching life-affirming, stabilizing financial goals.

They decreased their debt and opened savings accounts. They also reduced or eliminated public assistance and increased their income.

Six people raised their family income to at least 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The initiative earned the Circles USA Outstanding Ally Award and the Circles USA Outstanding Circle Leader Award.

It also had an honorable mention in the People Helping People Community Legacy Award.

Now, Circles Utah Valley is being recognized for its success by the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance.

The recognition highlights the program for using social capital to support the employment goals of low-income Utahns.

In 2013, the Utah Department of Workforce Services partnered with several Utah Community Action agencies to help fund the Circles initiative for families and children. As part of the TANF program, DWS is invested in finding ways to help families get permanently on their feet so they no longer need public assistance.

Circles provides a comprehensive approach that combines information and relationships to combat poverty, meeting the TANF of creating stable families and individuals.

Circles isn’t money. It isn’t things—it’s relationships.

It’s something very often the participants have never had before, just that real wraparound of people.

It’s a community that they join, that gives them hope and the vision that life can be different than the way that they’ve previously seen it.

So, what is Circles, and how is it working in Utah Valley? How Circles Works Circles connects people whose incomes fall below 150 percent of the federal poverty level with local volunteers who work as mentors or allies.

Together, they develop strategies and goals to get out of poverty. Graduation happens when a family’s income reaches at least 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The program takes at least 18 months to complete, but in most cases, it takes more time. People with alcohol or drug addiction or mental health issues must be in recovery six months before starting the program as well as have a stable place to live. Participants, or Circle Leaders, bond with fellow participants, build relationships with their mentors, allies, and coaches, and learn how to link with resources to improve their lives. They learn new life skills that lead them toward self-sufficiency.

Sometimes it can be hard to measure the success of building social capital. But because the Circles initiative ties social capital to more tangible goals, success is easier to gauge.

In 2019 alone, Circles had six graduates; 47 leaders working through the program; 172 volunteers, 71 volunteers allies; a 65 percent increased income of participants; a 50 percent decrease in participant debt; 87 percent increase of participants with a savings account; a 55 percent decrease in participants on public assistance; 39 percent decrease of those on public assistance.

Behind each one of these statistics are stories of people who are working hard to change their lives and provide for their families.

Gaylene is a single mom of six children. When she joined Circles she had no idea how she would ever get out of poverty and make enough to support her family. With a lot of work and support from her allies, she secured a job with full benefits, saved up and purchased a home, and survived breast cancer, all in the course of three or so years.

Gaylene has accomplished things she never thought she could and graduated from Circles with a stable income for her family, a stable place to live, and increased well-being for her family. She credits Circles, especially the friendship of her allies, for this success.

“One of the cool things about Circles is that it brings the community to the table in a way that we don’t,” said David Ostrom, of the Provo Department of Workforce Services office. “It takes a village.”

Though Circles has only been a part of Utah Valley for less than a decade, it is making a real difference in people’s lives, ending the cycle of poverty now and for generations to come.

For more information about how you can get involved with Circles, go to Kathy Givens is the Circles Utah Valley Coordinator. A program hosted by Community Action Services and Food Bank, Circles Utah Valley is located at 815 South, Freedom Blvd, Ste. 100. For more information on Circles, educational programs, how to make donations, upcoming classes, food drives and more at CASFB, visit or call (801) 691-5287. (Serve Daily submission)

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