Shelly Aldean: Teaching the poor to fish



“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch a fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” While the origin of this familiar phrase is disputed — some attribute it to an ancient Chinese source, others to a young 19th century authoress named Anne Ritchie — the truth of this axiom is undeniable. The ability to provide for oneself by learning the skills necessary to become more self-sufficient ensures a greater chance for long term prosperity than being reliant on the uncertain charity of others.

While many of this country’s welfare programs were no doubt built on a foundation of good intentions, their unintended consequence, in some cases, has been to institutionalize the very thing they were meant to abolish — poverty. By neglecting to deal with poverty holistically, we are relegating many of the underprivileged in this country to a lifetime of dependency.

Teaching those in poverty how to navigate their way into personal prosperity is the mission of the Capital City Circles Initiative.

According to Ruby Payne, “We can neither excuse persons from poverty nor scold them for not knowing; as professionals we must teach them and provide support, insistence, and expectations”.

Since its founding in 2007, the Circles Initiative in Carson City has sought out local families in poverty who are motivated to improve their own circumstances through hard work and a commitment to change counterproductive behaviors.

“The principal goal (of the program) is for families to free themselves from the struggles and challenges that living in poverty poses and perpetuates,” said Brenda Silis, program manager for Circles. “The process takes significant work and commitment by program participants, staff and community volunteers, requiring up to 24 months to complete. Participants receive guidance, resources and ongoing staff support to accomplish their goals. They commit to attending an intensive “Getting Ahead” workgroup that meets once a week for 16 weeks where they investigate, through a highly participatory curriculum, behaviors preventing them from leading a financially secure life. They learn about personal responsibility, relationship building, communication, goal setting and money management. To stay in our program, participants are required to develop a spending plan and demonstrate the self-discipline needed to make it work”.

During my tenure with Circles I have watched many Getting Ahead graduates receive their certificates of completion. These men and women, whose voices were once muted by hopelessness and quiet desperation, exhibit a remarkable presence and poise as they articulate for others their dreams and aspirations for the future.

Some might say that our program’s expectations are too high and our standards too rigorous for people raised in poverty, that we need to take a more enabling and paternalistic attitude toward the economically disadvantaged. As my gentle soul of a grandmother would say “Poppycock!”

Lowering our expectations only demeans and insults the impoverished; it implies that they are incapable of rising to the same challenge that has confronted and been overcome by many Americans before them. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, who rose from humble beginnings himself, “I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty but leading or driving them out of it.”

Shelly Aldean is a former member of the Carson City Board of Supervisors and President of the Capital City Circles Initiative.


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