New Jersey Star-Ledger, April 27, 2008: ‘Allies’ in the battle to vanquish poverty

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About two dozen low-income families in Sussex and Somerset counties will be getting a unique chance to escape poverty.

The seeds of an innovative, poverty-fighting program called “Circles” were sown last week by Norwescap, a nonprofit agency that assists low-income residents in Sussex, Morris, Warren, Hunterdon and Somerset counties.

The Circles concept of partnering a poor family with two to four middle- or upper-income volunteer “allies” was started in the mid-1990s by the Ames, Iowa-based Move the Mountain Leadership Center, and has since spread to 40 communities in 18 states.

Allies befriend families and form social-support networks. Each family, with unique needs and goals, meets regularly with allies and hopefully forms “bonding, bridging and linking social capital” to build up financial, emotional and social resources that allow the family to eventually get off welfare or rise above poverty-level incomes.

“One of the keys to this is creating relationships across class lines,” said Norwescap director Terry Newhard.

The program is not a cure-all, but it works as long as everyone involved sticks with it, Move the Mountain co-founder Scott Miller told a group of 45 community and social-service agency leaders Tuesday in Frankford.

“It’s all about intentionality,” Miller said. “We’re closer now to ending poverty in this country than ever.”

The pilot Circles program in Iowa showed that when families have more support and structure for getting out of poverty their lives change for the better in many ways. Families become healthier and more positive, and adults become better parents. The 106 participants in the Ames model program had been on welfare for nearly four years on average; of those, 58 got off welfare after an average of 10 months, and that translated into an annual savings of $491,000 in cash-assistance and food stamps, Miller said.

Circles successes do not necessarily come easily or quickly, though. Participating families first have to undergo a 15-week course that determines the reasons for their poverty and identifies their hurdles to better lives.

“It’s not an overnight thing,” Newhard said. “We’re going to have to identify the barriers for each family and start to get past those.”

That’s where the allies come in. They also must be recruited, undergo training and stick with it.

Anne Murphy, director of the Sussex County Interfaith Hospitality Network that shelters the homeless, heard the Circles pitch and said it sounded promising for Sussex County, where “we’re seeing second-, third-, fourth-generation families on welfare.”

“I think it’s needed in Sussex County,” Murphy said of the plan. “We need to get more people involved who were in poverty (themselves, but no longer are) to help others.”

Norwescap (Northwest New Jersey Community Action Program) was established in 1965, and serves 30,000 low-income individuals each year in Sussex, Warren, Morris, Hunterdon and Somerset counties through programs such as: Head Start; the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; child-care services, and food banks, to name a few.

The Circles program is being launched simultaneously in Sussex and Somerset counties, because United Way organizations and other groups and agencies in both counties expressed interest, said Newhard, who also hopes to attract faith-based and other nonprofit groups.

“The bottom line is we want 25 families (in the two counties) to experience getting out of poverty,” Miller said.

For more information, go to or, or call Norwescap at (908) 454-7000.

Jim Lockwood may be reached at or (973) 383-0516.

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