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South Salt Lake Journal

Breaking the cycle of poverty through allyship

Dec 04, 2022 11:14AM ● By Peri Kinder

By Peri Kinder | [email protected]

Although Utah’s poverty rate is one of the lowest in the nation, thousands of children in the state grow up in intergenerational poverty. More than 70% of children growing up in IGP are under 10 years old, and women have much higher odds of struggling with poverty than men.

The cycle of IGP begins when a child is born in poverty. This has shown to create disadvantages at school and difficulty developing social skills. As the child grow into a teen and young adult, they struggle to find work and end up raising their own family in poverty. And the cycle continues.

But Circles Salt Lake (2530 S. 500 East) is a community for those in poverty to help break the cycle and give them tools to succeed by creating allyships that support individuals and families as they learn to lift themselves to a new life.

“People living in poverty don’t know the value of social capital,” said Michelle Crawford, Circles Salt Lake executive director. “When someone’s in generational poverty, they were born into poverty, most likely everyone in their circle of influence is also in poverty, they don’t have the lens to get out of it.”

The Salt Lake chapter of the national program started in 2017 with two goals: help families break the chain of poverty and address barriers that keep people stuck. People who come to the program are called circle leaders because they are leading their families in a better direction. Each circle leader is matched with an ally, a bridge between economic classes.

Participants go through an initial 12-week training and are asked to commit to a minimum of 18 months. Once a circle leader has increased their household income to at least 200% of the federal poverty level, Circles holds a big celebration.

“Our focus is to get them completely independent of government services,” Crawford said. “We love Medicaid and Medicare and all they do to help our participants manage their situational poverty, but we don’t want them to stay there. We want them to become independent of those services.”

Circle leaders are asked to attend weekly meetings, make progress toward an economic stability plan and become a leader in their community. Many circle leaders who complete the program come back to be allies to new participants in the program.

An ally’s role is part mentor, cheerleader, friend and bridge builder. Each ally is invited to attend meetings on the first and third Thursday of each month and is asked to be a consistent support for those trying to break the cycle of IGP.

“What I’ve learned is that, sadly, many people in poverty are conditioned to think that’s all they’re worth. They grow up being told not to expect a better life,” Crawford said. “An ally can connect their circle leader with people in the community that can help them work toward their dream.”

Living in poverty usually comes with layers of trauma including abuse, domestic violence and mental and emotional damage. So there's more to breaking the cycle of IGP than an increase in salary. Circle leaders undertake a massive mindset change that allows them to dream big and work toward a better future.

If a circle leader doesn’t graduate in 18 months, they can keep attending, as long as they’re participating. Nationally, the average for graduating from the Circles program is three years.

Not only do circle leaders come back to be allies, recently one was appointed to the Circles Salt Lake board of directors.

“It was important to us that we weren’t just talking about poverty, that we had someone who could contribute to that conversation,” Crawford said. “Having somebody who’d recently experienced poverty to be able to give us input on the decisions we make was critical.”

For more information about becoming a circle leader or ally, visit

Crawford has big goals for the upcoming year, hoping to get 25-30 circle leaders enrolled in the program. Because each circle leader has two allies, Crawford is looking for 60 people in the community to become allies.

“I would love Utah to set the example of how a program gets participants independent of government services and breaking that cycle of poverty,” Crawford said.