Reinventing society's approach to the working poor

MacArthur 'genius' grant winner's approach focuses on low-interest loans, cash incentives, family networks

Mauricio Lim Miller is the founder of the Family Independence Initiative.
Don Feria/Home Front Communications

Mauricio Lim Miller is certain that for the last 50 years, the United States has been tackling entrenched poverty — the kind that can trap families for generations — the wrong way.

Miller, who last year won a MacArthur "genius" grant for his work, is the founder of the Family Independence Initiative (FII), a group that’s shown results for its unusual approach. Instead of relying on professional caseworkers, the nonprofit encourages families to set their own goals, provides cash incentives if they achieve them and fosters relationships among families so they can turn to one another for support.

The model is based on Miller's belief that social services typically emphasize people’s deficiencies instead of their strengths and focus on catching people in crisis rather than helping propel them out of poverty. Since its creation in 2001, FII has expanded to new cities and recently unveiled low-interest loans, matching money for savings accounts and other tools that are typically available only to wealthier people.

A social worker won't ask me what I'm good at. They just want to know what’s wrong.

Miller's story starts almost six decades ago, when his mother, Berta Miller, boarded a Greyhound bus from Mexico to San Jose, Calif., in search of a better life. 

Fleeing a messy divorce, she had a third-grade education, little money and no family to speak of in California’s fastest-growing city. For the next decade, she did what immigrants have done for generations before her, squirreling away money to keep her small family afloat, working as a bookkeeper and clerk. Berta even forbade the kids from speaking Spanish at home so she would lose her accent, which she worried was making it harder for her to secure jobs.

But as soon as she would start experiencing a small measure of success, something — a lost job, a broken-down car — would send her tumbling back down. One step forward, two steps back, eking out a living in that first apartment on First North Street. Her lack of a formal education held her back; she couldn’t pass a CPA exam. 

She steered her son to the University of California at Berkeley, determined he would become an engineer. Tuition at the time was free. Once he was there, though, the world opened up, Mauricio says, with new opportunities and resources.

After Berta's death, Mauricio left engineering, seeking a way to help families like his climb out of poverty. He took a job at a conventional social-services nonprofit called Asian Neighborhood Design, which provided a variety of job-training and housing services for low-income clients. But he was conscious that Berta would have had no interest in heeding instructions from the caseworkers his group employed.

"She thought, 'A social worker won’t ask me what I’m good at. They just want to know what’s wrong,'" Mauricio says. "Most of the welfare programs say, 'Show me need, and then I'll be nice to you.'"

"Poverty pimp"

Miller's beliefs about the dysfunction of the social safety net crystallized 13 years ago, when he was awoken by an irate late-night telephone call from then–Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.

Brown, now the governor of California, was apoplectic over $10 million being requested by a youth program Miller was involved with and incredulous that the project guaranteed exactly no jobs for participants but ensured the employment of 120 caseworkers.

Brown accused Miller of being "a poverty pimp." Miller didn’t exactly disagree.

He knew his approaches weren’t working at breaking the kind of poverty that had kept Berta on the brink most of her life. Year after year he saw the same people walk through his doors; a generation later, he saw their children.

Four weeks after that phone call, Miller resigned from Asian Neighborhood Design and started FII as a research project. 

With start-up money from Brown, Miller began with families he knew, who recruited other families, for a total of 27 households. He gave the families laptops with data-tracking software that enabled them to record each action they took to improve their situations — increasing their savings, taking skills-training classes or improving their children's grades. Quarterly, they received cash payments, up to $600, for documenting those actions.

Miller and FII staff members did not provide mediation or direction; they just audited the data. Miller wanted a window into how low-income families functioned if they were nudged to set and pursue their own goals.

He also wanted to give the families a social network, the kind his mother lost when she immigrated to the United States. Tight-knit communities had been lifting working families out of poverty for generations, Miller observed. African-American barbershops in Harlem thrived when business owners shared their skills with their friends and families. The Cambodian-refugee community on the West Coast came to dominate independent doughnut shops in the same way. So Miller asked that the families in his program meet once a month to talk about what they were doing and how to help one another. 

After two years, the results were remarkable. The families increased their incomes on average by 27 percent, excluding FII payments. Forty percent bought homes within three years.

As FII has expanded — working with nearly 1,000 families in the San Francisco Bay Area; Oahu, Hawaii; and Boston — the results have continued to hold up. Groups experience, on average, a roughly 20 percent bump in income over two years. Among FII families, dozens of new businesses have sprouted, savings have burgeoned, debt has been paid down, and home ownership has increased.

Miller insists that the families are given almost complete freedom to do what they think is best. He has fired four FII staff members in the last 10 years for trying to "help."

His staff nearly revolted after he refused to intervene when two Salvadoran refugees living in a rough part of Oakland wanted to buy a home from a predatory lender that set their mortgage at 60 percent of their income. He let it happen, and astoundingly, the two figured out how to refinance on their own with the help of their FII group.  

The programs work to trap people in dependence and discourage people from moving toward self-sufficiency. If you get a raise, you can be worse off, have less in actual dollars.

FII, which has 13 employees and a $5.5 million budget supported by foundations and donors, will open projects next year in New Orleans and Detroit to see if its strategy holds up among other populations. The group is also experimenting with a broader range of services meant to bring the kinds of incentives reserved for the well off to the working poor.

Miller believes this is a big part of the problem — that government and philanthropic services for low-income people inadvertently punish progress.

For the rich, tax structures, government policies and business practices are aimed at sparking innovation and entrusting potential job creators with resources to build on their wealth. The affluent have easy access to capital, low-interest loans, the mortgage-interest deduction, employer-matched retirement funds and social networks.

For the poor, there's the $746 billion safety net — benefits like food stamps, state-level cash assistance, unemployment insurance and housing assistance — to meet families' basic needs while they're in crisis. But as people make progress, earning more income, they quickly lose benefits.

Some policymakers share Miller's concerns and have been pushing to restructure the tax code to avoid punishing the working poor. "The programs work to trap people in dependence and discourage people from moving toward self-sufficiency," said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., in an interview with Al Jazeera America. "If you get a raise, you can be worse off, have less in actual dollars." He and Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., are sponsoring legislation to form a commission to study these issues.

To fill that gap for the working poor, Miller's nonprofit has rolled out low-interest loans for FII families whose qualifications focus on payment histories not typically used by banks, like paying rent and utilities on time. It has partnered with Kiva Zip, a website that allows online donors to make no-interest direct loans of up to $5,000 to promising entrepreneurs. The group created a website, Up Together, that lets FII families in different parts of the country connect, share resources and guide one another.

FII designed its own form of individual development accounts, which match families' savings and allow them to spend the extra cash any way they want. (Government-funded IDA programs place restrictions on how the money can be used.) And the group is offering no-strings fellowships and scholarships.

Ramona Shewl is a single mom in San Francisco who struggled in the past with cocaine addiction and was jailed for petty theft. She started getting her life together three years ago, kicking her bad habits, finding a job and going back to school. Then a co-worker led her to FII.

Shewl says she signed up just so she could have a laptop at home to do her schoolwork, but the experience ended up being transformative.  

In addition to attending monthly meetings with her group, the Fitness Five, and receiving quarterly payouts for submitting data, Shewl set up an IDA and used her $2,000 in matching funds to buy a used car to help her travel between her two jobs. She's paying for her master's degree in counseling and her son's classes at Arizona State, in part through a scholarship that FII helped her secure through the crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo.com.

"The project works because I put in the work, I put in the effort, and I put in the tenacity and the gung-ho to make it work," Shewl says. "I don't live for my paycheck anymore, and I'm able to pay all my bills. I'm ready for those rainy days when things come up."

Challenging stereotypes

But have FII's efforts been enough? No, Miller says emphatically.

"We have not broken the cycle, in all honesty. If you're making $20,000 and your income jumps 20 percent, you have now $25,000," he says. "Is that enough? Not nearly."

Policy experts say FII's model shows some promise but it needs further study. Peter Edelman, a former Clinton administration official who resigned in protest over welfare-reform legislation in 1996, believes FII should be rigorously evaluated. Even then, he says, there are major limitations to what it can accomplish.  

"It could make a difference for some people," Edelman wrote in an email. "But it doesn't replace a good education, availability of a good job, health care, help with child care and housing as needed, food stamps and other income support as needed and so on."

Miller agrees that his project won't work for everyone, that social-safety-net services are still necessary for those in crisis. But he also says he simply needs more proof. He hopes that by reaching 20,000 families over the next five years, he'll have enough evidence to start approaching more policymakers with the idea. For now, he's encouraged that his work has started to challenge stereotypes of the poor.

"It's been so internalized in both the left and the right that these families don't have the capacity, that there's something wrong with them, otherwise they would've succeeded anyway," he says. "What I have to advocate for is a change in attitude. If they don't change attitude, these people will never be trusted with resources."

Alia Malek contributed reporting for this story. 

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