Last week (and again yesterday in a follow-up article) The New York Times featured the poverty-fighting work of the Family Independence Initiative (FII). Founded by Maurice Lim Miller in 2001, FII is a nonprofit, community-based organization that helps working poor families escape poverty by encouraging and rewarding personal initiative and mutual support.
On its Web site, FII displays a heading that reads, “Recreating the conditions under which generation after generation of Americans secured a future for their children and communities.” What are those historic conditions? According to Miller, they include personal initiative, shared capital, and a sense of community.
Reflecting on his own family’s successful climb out of poverty, Miller studied how various low-income communities in the United States have been able to move from severe poverty to financial independence. The common thread he discovered was that people turned to family and friends, pooled their resources, and followed the example of neighbors who showed signs of success. Armed with these insights, Miller set out to create an initiative that encouraged families in need to help one another.
He thought it was important to target not individuals or single families but rather cohorts of six to eight families that would go through the program together. Accountability is a critical aspect of the initiative. According to the Times:
F.I.I. asked them to write down their goals, gave each a computer and enlisted them to fill in a questionnaire each month that tracked changes in things like income, assets, debts, health, education, skills, social networks and civic engagement.
They offered families $30 for every success they reported up to a maximum of $200 per month.… Anything they reported—a pay increase, a doctor visit, an improvement in a child’s grades—had to be documented.
Most important, families had to agree to meet as a group at least once a month in a confidential setting to discuss their goals and any issues they deemed important. FII didn’t guide the agenda and its liaisons did not act as facilitators. They established the structure and backed off, creating a vacuum for families to take the lead.…
[S]oon people began sharing their goals.… Group members offered encouragement, as well as advice and contacts. In follow up meetings, people would talk about steps they had taken. The group members would hold one another to account: “Didn’t you say you were going to get your G.E.D.? Where are you with that?”
FII has followed this approach with families in San Francisco, Oakland, Hawaii, and Boston. Self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship have been the results:
After two years, F.I.I. reported that incomes across all its sites had increased, on average, by 23 percent and savings were up 240 percent. In San Francisco, 30 percent of families established side businesses—everything from lawn maintenance to making pupusas to cutting people’s hair—to cope with the recession. A quarter of the families that had been receiving government income or housing subsidies—CalWorks or Section 8—dropped them. Families reported improvements in health care, children’s grades, reductions in debt, enrollment in training programs and home ownership—all audited. Word rippled outward and within six months, 200 families applied to join F.I.I.
When it comes to helping those in need, FII’s approach is more efficient and effective than most government welfare programs, which often create unhealthy dependence on the state and operate in a one-size-fits-all manner. By allowing families the freedom to determine their own paths and investing in their strengths and initiative, FII fosters mutual support, resident leadership, and genuine hope of improvement.
As Miller is fond of saying, tackling poverty by relying on social capital and a sense of community is “as radical and as old as our democracy.”