In this paper, founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative Maurice Lim Miller outlines a new model for breaking the cycle of poverty, which shows promising results in three separate demonstration projects. As Miller looks to grow his idea, he has found that this approach—which puts the target families and individuals in the driver’s seat of their own progress, does not require professional social service workers, and relies more on the assets of the families themselves—is not only a tough sell to public and private funders, but has faced direct opposition from incumbent service providers. In this essay, Miller explores a range of barriers and roadblocks to growing or scaling social innovations.
Over the last eight years, we at the Family Independence Initiative (FII) have been testing an antipoverty approach that focuses on families’ strengths and social networks. This effort restores the responsibility for progress to the target families, supported primarily by friends rather than social workers. It creates the type of sharing of funds, ideas, and connections that has been successfully used throughout our history by immigrants and disadvantaged minority populations to move from extreme poverty to economic security.
In all three demonstration projects where we implemented the FII model, the enrolled families made strong and verified progress. While this approach has been embraced by a small sector of supporters, it continues to face major obstacles in gaining policy and funding support. This paper explains why FII has attracted some supporters but it primarily explores the obstacles FII and similarly innovative initiatives face in being adopted more widely. First an explanation of the unique FII model is required to understand why it faces such an intensity of apprehension, opposition, and misunderstanding.
Background of the Family Independence Initiative Approach
In late 1999, Jerry Brown, then Mayor of Oakland, CA, called me at my house at dinner time. He was complaining that for decades those like me who ran programs aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty seemed to only be creating jobs for ourselves. He asked, “So, isn’t this just poverty pimping?”
The community development agency I ran, A.N.D. in San Francisco/Oakland, CA, was considered one of the best in the country but after a decade of work I knew we weren’t really breaking the cycle of poverty. Within 10 years I was seeing the children of the parents I’d first trained and helped get jobs cycle into my programs. I knew I was helping people get above poverty level, but the parents I helped could not keep all their kids from falling into trouble. This is what happened in my family when my mother had to work two jobs and my older sister got in trouble and fell into crisis.
A 2008 census bureau study confirmed that what I witnessed in the Bay Area was the same across the country, poverty is a dynamic process: over a three year period between 2001 and 2003, over 30 percent of individuals spent two or more months in poverty yet only 2.4 percent of people remained under the poverty line for the entire 36 month period. This is a vicious and costly cycle for everyone. It became clear to me that spending to get people above the poverty level was not sufficient. Jerry Brown’s comments and my frustration led to the start of the Family Independence Initiative.
What Makes the Family Independence Initiative Different
FII was initially designed as a research project to test the capacity of low-income families to help themselves and others out of poverty. We wanted to understand what would happen if 1) low-income families had access to some of the funds traditionally spent on professionals to help the families, and 2) families were instead encouraged to turn to friends and social networks for help and direction. FII did not form the initial peer groups. We enrolled families in groups of five to eight households who, upon hearing of the opportunity to join FII, self-selected to come together.
Because FII staff was perceived by the target families to be in a power position, we did not allow staff to provide any leadership or direction to the groups or we would not learn of the families' capacities. FII staff did, however, challenge the groups to take actions toward change as they saw fit. Families could earn about $25 to $30 for reporting and providing documentation of the progress they made, be it improving grades, saving more, or starting a business. The maximum they could earn was $500 per quarter and the wide variety of paths allowed did not dictate families to follow any preprogrammed actions. Families were paid for moving forward, regardless of the path they chose.
The monthly reporting process itself turned out to be a change agent. In an evaluation families commented that reporting their progress kept them focused on making changes and that the feedback from the monthly tracking charts FII provided reinforced the progress they were making. The small amounts of capital that they earned by reporting and documenting their progress could then be invested to continue their progress as they saw fit. We found that giving the families control and choice at the outset led to an organic process of change. This is at the heart of FII. Family progress was heavily influenced by personal choice, cultural values, and friends as they turned to one another to find the best childcare, new jobs, or emotional support.
Key Lessons from the Family Independence Initiative
What FII learned in its first demonstration project in Oakland, and was reinforced in subsequent demonstrations in Hawaii and San Francisco, is that low-income families have a huge capacity to help themselves and others. While every family took different individual actions, patterns did arise. When one of the Salvadoran refugee families scaled back on remittances in order to save up for a house in Oakland, all five of the other refugee families in their cohort, as well as others not enrolled in FII, followed their lead and eventually purchased their own homes in the Bay Area. These changes in group expectations are akin to how immigrant and indigenous communities have historically and recently followed one another’s example to leave poverty.
Ultimately the primary difference between the large majority of low-income families and the rest of society is that low-income families have less money, not less capability. They also have a very strong desire for choice and control over their lives. By focusing on family strengths rather than needs, government and philanthropy can play an effective and central role in changing how this country helps the large number of families that are willing to help themselves and others.
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For examples see:
Seth Mydans, “Long Beach Journal; From Cambodia to Doughnut Shops.” New York Times, May 26, 1995.
The Chinese in California: Topical Overview--San Francisco's Chinatown--Business and Politics." The Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award99/cubhtml/theme4.html, February 15, 2011.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., All Deliberate Speed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 108-09.
 FII–National dashboard data at www.fiinet.org. Balance Point Independent Study Summary results: Household income jumps of 20% + within 2 years, lower debt levels, improved children’s grades, increased homeownership and business startups.
Sharon Stern, “Poverty Dynamics: 2001 – 2003”, U.S. Census Bureau, 2008.