Scott Miller wants to eradicate poverty in America by working with one financially struggling family at a time.
No doubt this is a challenging proposition, but the self-professed social entrepreneur says a lot can be accomplished simply by working to change the mindset of many cash-strapped U.S. citizens.
"We've got to create a culture of risk-taking, savviness with money and entrepreneurialism," said Miller, the co-founder and CEO of Move the Mountain Leadership Center, an organization focused on boosting national awareness of poverty. "If we're not teaching people the idea of money -- the basic difference between an asset and a liability -- we're disabling them from being able to make their dreams come alive in the future."
The 54-year-old Albuquerque, N.M., resident is also the brains behind the center's Circles Campaign, an innovative, community-based program aimed at addressing some of the systematic causes of personal debt and increasing financial literacy, partly by building relationships between families living below the poverty line and those earning middle to upper-level incomes.
Low-income families participating in Circles -- which currently operates in 60 communities across 23 U.S. states -- must first interview with a Move the Mountain representative. If deemed willing and determined to change their habits, the family will then be enrolled in a small 9-week class with a company trainer who introduces basic financial principles. With the help of several middle and upper income volunteer "allies," families then establish economic goals tailored to their own needs. A subsequent, 18-month curriculum focused on concepts like managing personal savings and credit will continue to aide the participants in achieving those various goals.
If participating in Circles sounds relatively complex, that's because it is, which is why Miller tries to ensure participants are committed to mastering the concepts behind financial stability before they start the program. Thus far, the program has had an impressive success rate: 58 out of the 106 Circles participants who received cash assistance from the government at the start of the program were able to get off welfare within 10 months after enrollment, Miller said.
"Most people have a certain reluctance in the beginning," Miller, who authored Until It's Gone: Ending Poverty in Our Nation, in Our Lifetime, acknowledged. "But once they begin to understand there's a difference between their hidden rules and those of people in middle and upper-income means, there's a growing confidence. Most people are sort of amazed that other people are interested ... they are usually so relieved they're not in isolation anymore."
Miller says his interest in humanitarian work started as an adolescent, shortly after he began volunteering at a Rochester, N.Y.-based homeless shelter. Once there, he began to notice what he described as the "tyranny of the moment" mindset among low-income families and others living below the poverty line.
"I was just struck by the fact that for most of these people, there was no long-term plan," he recalled. "They were going to get temporary shelter for a night and someone might listen to them for about 20 minutes, but that was about it."
Miller eventually went on to study architecture and business, and interestingly, his design background emerged as he described the issues surrounding most poverty-stricken families. "We shoot ourselves in the foot constantly by the [financial] architecture we design," he said. "When people are in poverty, they're more focused on the business of the day [than those in the middle to upper income level]."
As for the future, Miller says he hopes to increase the Circle Campaign's presence to 1,000 U.S. communities by 2013. But while his initiative will hopefully continue to help families out of poverty, Miller says it's the personal aspects of the program which end up being the most important, and many of the working relationships between participants and allies gel into more personal friendships that last well beyond the duration of the course. "The cross-income relationships are really powerful," he said. "We all need three things: enough money, meaning and friends."
For more information on Move the Mountain and the Circles Campaign, click here.