Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Enabling the poor to deal with their problems: the Family Independence Initiative

One person that has received a lot of acclaim for fighting poverty in America does so without any set outcomes.  Maurice Lim Miller's Family Independence Initiative simple gives the families cash and a computer. They then cooperate with other families in the program to work together to climb out poverty. Families will share daycare, appliances or transportation to help each other out.

Lim Miller's method reminds us of Brazil's Bolsa Familia program, where families are simply given a bit of money and are entrusted to make the best decisions with it.

From the Guardian, writer Mary O'Hara has this profile.

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.

No comments: