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November 7, 2012

Let those in poverty take control

A report from think tank, Demos, points out that disadvantaged families face a multiplicity of hardships and that low income is just one of many issues that need to be addressed if these families are to be helped. The Wider Lens highlights the challenge facing those who work with these families at a time of dwindling public resources.  US anti- poverty campaigner, Lim Miller, argues much better use of these resources could be made by handing them over to those who live with poverty.


At first glance, Maurice Lim Miller’s formula for fighting poverty sounds disconcertingly simple – if not downright utopian. Give people on low incomes a financial incentive to work together and they will build strong local networks that help lift them out of poverty. A plain speaker who is pleasingly devoid of professional jargon, Lim Miller says his approach is common sense. “You have to let families deal with [the problem] in their own way.”

As chief executive and driving force behind the Family Independence Initiative (FII), an anti-poverty, not-for-profit organisation based in Oakland, California, the former youth worker has been assiduously rewriting the rulebook on combating entrenched poverty. He has been garnering considerable attention in the process from policymakers and the media, which was fuelled further when he was awarded a coveted MacArthur “genius” fellowship this month. And with the latest figures showing that one in five children in the US live in poverty, he stands to attract even more interest in the months ahead.

In a nutshell, Lim Miller explains, FII challenges the conventional notion of “needs-based” poverty interventions and the stereotype that low-income families are not capable and rely on outside guidance. To this end, the organisation recruits small groups of struggling low-income families in poorer communities (they must know one another already) and incentivises them to work together to improve their circumstances. Regardless of any state benefits they receive, each family is given a computer and a modest stipend – no more than $500 (£312) per quarter – in return for documenting and reporting any progress they make by working with the other families.

These small steps, says Lim Miller, can be anything from learning leadership skills to increasing savings, to pooling resources for childcare so that parents can get out to work. But whatever form it takes, the point is that there are no professionals on the ground stipulating what their goals should be, or instructing on how to reach them.


The idea, Lim Miller stresses, is that low-income households are steered away from dependency on welfare programmes, which, he says, “no matter how well meaning are disempowering”. It is taken for granted that the families “will spend the money much more efficiently”, he adds, if it is simply handed over and left up to them. He says the guiding principle is that people from poor backgrounds are neither the “victims” they are often portrayed as by people on the left, or “lazy” and undeserving as they are frequently labelled by the right. “Just like anyone else, these families want some control and choice in their lives.”

The project, which Lim Miller acknowledges was a bold experiment when it launched with a small cohort of families in Oakland almost a decade ago, has grown steadily. There are now more than 350 families participating in Boston, San Francisco and Oakland with further expansion planned, including an online social networking hub. “In the first two years [of the project] in Oakland, incomes jumped among the group by 27%. Savings were up by 300%. Nine out of the 23 families had bought homes,” he says. The latest data from the initiative shows considerable progress in San Francisco and Boston with average incomes up.

Lim Miller talks too of a “ripple effect” within communities. “People can see that somebody achieved something … Expectations change.” The perception people have of their life chances is critical, he argues. “If you are in a community where no one is getting ahead, what does that do [to you]?”

The participants are not families in crisis but those trying to get a foot on the social mobility ladder. “I’ve been working with low-income families for over 20 years. These are families who are trying, who want to get out [of poverty] but are stuck,” he explains.

Lim Miller speaks eloquently about how his background as the son of an impoverished immigrant Mexican mother propelled him to find new ways to tackle the cycle of extreme poverty. “This approach is very personal. My mom was a single mom who was determined for me to get out of poverty for good. Pride was important to her,” he says. However, FII was also born of professional frustration. “I came into [FII] from doing non-profit work. When I saw the kids of the people I worked with, when I started out, coming [to services for help], I thought: ‘Whatever we are doing, it isn’t working’. I began to question why.”

Just as Lim Miller was beginning to probe into why anti-poverty strategies had failed for so long, he was asked in 1999 by the then mayor of Oakland and current governor of California, Jerry Brown, to come up with alternative ways to channel money already set aside to tackle poverty. Brown asked Lim Miller why, when so many social workers and professionals were being employed to run schemes to help poor people, the problem remained so intractable. “Jerry said to me: ‘Doesn’t this seem like poverty pimping to you?'” When he went back to Brown with the idea to give money directly to poor families to see what they did with it, the mayor took an unexpected leap of faith and FII was born.

Lim Miller’s work has been recognised at the highest levels and his input is being sought by thinktanks including the rightwing Heritage Foundation.

In 2010, he was appointed to President Obama’s White House Council for Community Solutions, an advisory board exploring fresh approaches to mobilising people to work together on addressing community problems. In 1999, even before FII was up and running, Miller was honoured by the then president Bill Clinton at the state of the union address for his youth, race relations and poverty work. A string of other awards has also been lavished on him.

Yet, for all the accolades, Lim Miller is clearly a pragmatist. The recognition means nothing more than an opportunity to bolster FII’s work. Cuts to social services have ensured that spare cash is in short supply – although it is doubtful state money would be forthcoming even without cuts. In his experience, officials are not amenable to an unorthodox project that deliberately does not prescribe its outcomes. Some funding has been secured from private foundations, but many remain reticent for similar reasons to government.

Lim Miller suggests that, despite such obstacles, a combination of factors has coalesced to mean attitudes to tackling poverty might be shifting. Among these is the evidence of FII’s success and that the most severe recession since the 1930s has hurled a multitude of families into poverty. Important also, he says, has been the growing awareness of the widening wealth gap between rich and poor and the decline of social mobility.

So, does he think his approach might translate to Britain or to other countries? He says one of “the most important lessons” he learned when the project moved beyond Oakland was that cultural, ethnic and local differences may exist, but the very fact that families set their own goals makes the programme uniquely adaptable. “People in Britain concerned about poverty in the future need to look at the social context,” he says. “Lifting people above a poverty line is not enough. People must have a stake. There has to be something tangible in the long term. That’s what gives people hope.”