Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Far too many Americans are trapped in a vicious cycle of multi-generational poverty. Despite hundreds of billions in charitable giving annually and as much as $1 trillion every year in anti-poverty government programs, the poverty rate in the U.S. has not declined significantly since the 1960s. It’s time for a different approach—one that sees the very people working to improve their lives as the solution rather than merely victims, or just a problem to be solved. We are committed to breaking the cycle of poverty. That’s why we invest in people with firsthand knowledge of the problems their communities face. They’re breaking the barriers people confront in society and inside themselves.

When we unleash the potential of people, we can catalyze the transformation of entire communities and break the cycle of poverty to help all people realize their potential.

Our Vision in Action

  • Through Stand Together Foundation, the Network is helping more than 100 organizations to be more effective, grow their efforts, and transform more lives. For example, Hudson Link—an in-prison college degree program—is reducing recidivism rates from nearly 70% nationally to less than 2% for the incarcerated men and women they serve.
  • The Opportunity Index,” with Gallup and The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, empowers faculty and students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to develop solutions to problems affecting fragile communities.
  • Americans for Prosperity is standing up against unnecessary occupational licensing in dozens of states—costly, time-consuming requirements that limit access to employment—including in New Jersey, where it recently helped overturn a law requiring people to pay $18,000 in tuition and sit through 1,200 hours of training to braid hair.

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.”

Nelson Mandela 

Guiding Principles and Insights

Complex Problems. Unique Approaches.

For fifty years, the war on poverty has focused almost exclusively on symptoms, providing access to material necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. The result of this well-intentioned effort is that poverty in America might be easier to endure, but not any easier to escape. In fact, data shows the poorer you are growing up today, the more likely you are to stay poor through adulthood.

Making substantial progress requires tackling the five root causes of entrenched poverty: chronic unemployment, educational failure, family breakdown, addiction and trauma, and personal debt. The interconnection between these pathways to poverty is what makes the challenge complex, and there is no single solution. The paths out of poverty are as unique as the individuals living in it.

We’re investing in social enterprises and community leaders with proven track records of success in each of these five areas. They’re making substantial progress on everything from recidivism rates for the formerly incarcerated to reduced relapse rates for those recovering from addiction. They’re helping underprivileged kids find schools that prepare them for life and the homeless and chronically unemployed get back on their feet. No one of these approaches is the entire solution. We need to invest in sustained progress across them all.

Making substantial progress requires that we tackle the root causes of entrenched poverty: chronic unemployment, educational failure, family breakdown, addiction and trauma, and personal debt.

Recognize Injustice and the Dignity of Every Individual.

Many people discount historical and present injustices that are often at the root of poverty in America. Slavery. Segregation. An unequal criminal justice system. Cultural racism. Fear of immigrants. Others see people as mere victims in need. The only way to make real progress is to acknowledge both the injustices holding people back and the potential for every person to overcome even the most incredible obstacles—then break the barriers holding them back.

We must break educational barriers to ensure every student can receive an education that gives them a chance. Barriers to work have to go, so people aren’t prevented from meaningful employment that could help lift them out of poverty. Our criminal justice system needs an overhaul to restore equal treatment and justice for all, especially those at the margin of society. Data show these barriers disproportionately harm minority and low-income communities.

But reforming of our systems and institutions is just the start. Transformation must also happen through the support of strong and safe communities. At the heart of the most successful programs in America is a focus on helping people to see themselves as valuable and capable with something to contribute to their community.

Programs such as Hudson Link go beyond providing a diploma—they help incarcerated men and women transform their vision of themselves and gain hope for their future. Others such as Chrysalis go beyond helping the jobless fill out an application—they help people build self-worth and the belief that they have something to offer their community.

In each case, these local programs treat the people they serve as human beings full of dignity and potential, holding them to a higher standard and helping them see that they are capable of achieving things they didn’t think possible.

The most successful programs in the country focus on helping people see themselves as valuable and capable with something to contribute to their community.

Personal Experience and Local Knowledge Make all the Difference.

Some of the most effective social entrepreneurs making a real difference for people struggling to escape poverty and desperation have experienced it first-hand. These social entrepreneurs develop programs that are uniquely tailored to needs of the communities they serve, with their effectiveness driven in part by empathy and personal accountability.

For example, Antong Lucky—a former Bloods gang leader in Dallas—has helped thousands of at-risk kids abandon violence and avoid the path he went down. His personal experience, and that of his team of former gang members at Urban Specialists, enable them to engage their community credibly and effectively. Scott Strode discovered the healing power of a fitness community when he was in recovery from drug addiction. He founded The Phoenix, a peer-to-peer physical fitness program that’s helping people shed the stigma of addiction. Today, The Phoenix has relapse rates that are dramatically lower than than traditional treatment centers.

There are thousands of voluntary, community-based organizations like these across America. This “social sector” of our society offers a third way that stands apart from the public and private sectors. The social entrepreneurs that lead it are delivering solutions rooted in local knowledge and mutual benefit that are helping millions of Americans transform their lives.

The social sector is delivering solutions rooted in local knowledge and mutual benefit that are helping millions of Americans transform their lives.

More Examples of the Work We Support

In Education

  • The Thurgood Marshall College Fund established the Center for Advancing Opportunity, which brings new faculty and student voices into the conversation about removing barriers to opportunity in fragile communities.
  • Professors such as Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis at Florida State University are conducting first-of-its-kind research to identify the most effective ways to prepare people for release from prison and equip them with the skills they need to succeed, given the inextricable link between poverty and today’s broken criminal justice system.

In Communities

  • Cara utilizes life and career training skills to prepare and inspire motivated individuals to break the cycle of homelessness, transform their lives, strengthen their communities, and forge paths to real, lasting success.
  • Shelters to Shutters changes the trajectory of individuals experiencing situational homelessness and reduces the stigma around homelessness by partnering with the real estate community to provide housing and immediate employment opportunities.
  • Friends of the Children builds confidence in young people by helping with schoolwork, teaching emotional and social skills, encouraging perseverance, and building a growth mindset and grit for a full 12.5 years.
  • Back on My Feet revolutionizes the approach to homelessness through a running-based model to restore confidence, strength, and self-esteem. Its national chapters collaborate with local businesses to develop pathways for education and jobs for program participants while creating a movement to bring attention to and reduce homelessness in cities across the country.
  • Thistle Farms provides a strong community of advocates and partners for women who are recovering from trauma. They provide housing opportunities, as well as employment through an oil and candle shop where they manufacture their own high-quality products.

In Business

  • Stand Together Foundation’s Needs and Offers Marketplace connects business professionals to skills-based volunteering opportunities, where people can use their professional skills to help inspiring nonprofits break the cycle of poverty.
  • The MBM Center—led by a group of retired Koch Industries executives—offers business consulting services to help nonprofit leaders implement the values of principled entrepreneurship in their organizations.

In Government

  • Uniting bipartisan coalitions—including U.S. Senators, Congressmen, governors of both parties, and groups as diverse as the ACLU, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Google, and more—to enact criminal justice reforms at the federal level and in dozens of states that help break the cycle of poverty.
  • Americans for Prosperity-Mississippi led passage of a first-in-the-nation comprehensive reform of occupational licenses—which limit access to entry-level jobs and entrepreneurship—that has served as a model for recent reforms in other states, such as Nebraska.
  • Support the election of policy champions to the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governorships, and other state-level offices who will remove barriers that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and prevent people from realizing their potential.

Bottom Line

To break the cycle of poverty in America, we need to disrupt its root causes, remove the barriers people face in society and inside themselves, and empower those who’ve lived it to the lead the way.