By Guest Author David Bornstein
Seventeen years ago, Mauricio Lim Miller, a leader in the field of social services, received a phone call from Jerry Brown, who was the mayor of Oakland, Calif., at the time, that set him on a quest to understand how families really overcome poverty. Lim Miller had spent decades working in community development, leading an organization, Asian Neighborhood Design, that had grown into a nationally recognized model. In 1999, Lim Miller was one of the honorees, along with Rosa Parks, invited by President Bill Clinton to attend the State of the Union address.
Privately, however, Lim Miller had long had doubts about the effectiveness of his work helping people escape poverty.
Mr. Brown echoed those doubts in his phone call and issued a challenge. Lim Miller recalled, “He said, ‘After 30 years of the war on poverty, all we’ve done is made poverty tolerable. We haven’t fundamentally changed anything. If you could do anything to bring about a fundamental change in poverty and economic mobility, what would you do?’ And he asked me to think about it and come to his office in a few weeks.”
Lim Miller realized that didn’t know the answer. But he reflected: He had grown up as the son of an immigrant from Mexico, a single mother, who struggled mightily so he could attend the University of California at Berkeley. “When I came to Brown’s office I told him, ‘I don’t know what to do. But my mother figured out how to get me out of poverty, and I think other mothers, fathers and guardians might also have ideas about how to get their lives together. I would ask them to show us how to build their lives.’ ”
Out of that conversation grew the Family Independence Initiative, an organization that is challenging some of the core assumptions that have prevailed in social service work for decades — particularly the assumption that poor families need a great deal of assistance, advice and motivation from professional social workers to improve their lives. (Previous Fixes columns describe this work here and here.)
The initiative is grounded in the premise that a paternalistic conceit has hindered the development of poor families, perpetuated negative beliefs about them across society and led to systems of service that wealthier people would never choose for themselves. By contrast, Lim Miller’s organization provides no services or advice directly. What it offers are a structure and a platform within which families can strengthen their social networks, along with small payments for tracking their own behaviors and reporting them on a monthly basis. With these assets, they can discover what works for themselves and their peers, share or emulate their successes and assist one another.
To date, the initiative has worked with more than 2,000 families in 10 cities across the country — from the Bay Area to Boston, from Detroit to New Orleans. The families report surprising gains in income, educational attainment and mutual assistance. They have advanced homegrown solutions for child care, transportation, nutrition and entertainment, and assistance for seniors, housing and education. Their local lending circles have circulated nearly $2 million.
Last week, a new book by Lim Miller, The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong, was published. It draws from his personal and professional experiences, reflecting on the heart-wrenching decisions his mother made to ensure opportunities for him and his sister, and offering a sharp critique, from the left, that challenges a belief about poor families that prevails across the political spectrum.
I asked Lim Miller to share some of what he has learned.
David Bornstein: What’s the main idea in the book?
Mauricio Lim Miller: Those that have been involved in the war on poverty, although we’ve been trying to be helpful, have actually hidden the capacity in the communities themselves.
MLM: When I was running social services, if I didn’t present the charity case, I didn’t get funded. We competed to present the most in need. And families come to see that the more needy you are, the more eligibility you have. So the system asks them to hide their talent and initiative. It becomes a race to bottom. Our society works on stereotypes, whether it’s race, gender or ethnicity. If you’re hiding your talent, it adds to the stereotype. What permeates the left and the right is the belief that something must be wrong with poor families.
DB: How did the Family Independence Initiative begin?
MLM: When I first started F.I.I., it was more of a research project. We told families: “Our role is not to help you. You’re the experts of your own lives.” We said: “All we’re going to do is collect the data and give it back to you. You have to look for solutions.” We have fired four staff who couldn’t help but give advice to families. Within two years, I realized that people’s lives were changing. The data showed that when we provided an encouraging environment, but didn’t provide services, families had better outcomes. But initially most families didn’t know what to do to get ahead.
DB: How did they discover what to do?
MLM: What happens is that some families come up with solutions. They are the “positive deviants” or “early adopters.” Diffusion theory shows that once you have enough early adopters, others follow. That’s what happened after the first Irish became policemen in Boston in the 1850s. It’s what happened with homeownership among Salvadorans who joined F.I.I. We found that by giving families data about what all the families were doing, it began surfacing ideas. And while it may take six or seven months for something to happen, when a solution comes up naturally, it spreads.
DB: So the data is critical.
MLM: The data is the driving force. We had an evaluator come in and he found that the biggest driver of change among families is what’s called “social signaling” — when they see people who are like them doing something that they would like to do too, like starting businesses, buying homes. It creates jealousy, inspiration, fear of missing out. And they also realize that they can call someone who can help them. The data makes these positive deviants and early adopters more public, families share the stories, and it drives changes.
DB: What do you envision could come from this platform you’re building?
MLM: Amazon and Walmart can tell what’s being sold and what other products they should put in front of us. The F.I.I. has the best data-tracking and journaling system for low-income families in the country. We have millions of data points, and we can start making our own predictions and recommendations. We need more benefits around scholarships because that’s becoming more popular everywhere. Families need cars and better public transportation in Detroit. And we have the ability to do the analytics so that foundations or governments can put dollars out in a way that makes sense given what families are doing, especially locally. You can then look for patterns and you may come up with a state or national policy.
DB: Where did the war on poverty go wrong?
MLM: The war on poverty was about movements at the beginning; then it became about programs and institutions. And that has created a listening gap. All these poverty conferences we go to — the families we’re talking about are never there except as examples of a successful social service program. They’re never there to represent themselves, their own successes. They always represent programs. And their stories are told to get more funding for the programs.
DB: What’s wrong with programs?
MLM: I ran a program for 20 years. But I wouldn’t want my own family to use my own services, even though they were among the best in the country. Once I had money, I saw that the system for people with money runs very different than the social service system. When I get my kids tutors at Sylvan Learning Center, they ask, “Do you want tutors in the evening or afternoon? What works for you?” When I offered tutoring through my program, families had to take what I gave them, and I had to do what the funders required. But if the person who comes in for help isn’t making the choices themselves, they don’t hold themselves accountable. And there are very limited choices offered to people who can’t pay.
DB: What’s your vision in the years ahead?
MLM: We’re trying to elevate this concept of “no service.” We’d like to take the money that programs would normally spend on social workers and instead make it available as scholarships or investments or loans. That would parallel the kinds of benefits that we give to the rich because society thinks they create the jobs.
DB: What do you say to the social workers?
MLM: It’s very hard. In my career, some of the best people I’ve met are social workers. They have really good hearts and they want things to change, but it’s difficult to accept that you may be part of the problem, that in your desire to help, you may be playing into negative stereotypes that poor families have internalized. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that the paternalism of white moderates may be a greater barrier to fundamental change than outright racism.
People who are poor have to deal with class and gender and race issues, and they are so disrespected. All of us who want to make a difference need to learn how to be follower leaders — to use our positions and our privilege and access to money in a way that actually bolsters the initiative that the families take. But not to lead. It’s hard to stand back and trust families. But this change in perspective — to respect poor people — is what this country needs right now.
DB: Any final thoughts?
MLM: We need to get away from systems that focus on individuals and look toward the collective actions that people are taking. You don’t survive on $20,000 a year in the Bay Area unless you work with other families and help one another. We need to create an environment that honors people helping one another and sharing and being good to one another and recognizing where those efforts are happening.
David Bornstein is the author of "How to Change the World," which has been published in 20 languages, and "The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank," and is co-author of " ." He is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
(Photo Credit: The New York Times)