Before starting FII, Mauricio Lim Miller had been the well-regarded director of a large community development agency in San Francisco called Asian Neighborhood Design. Following the traditional needs-based approach, it met with its share of success, but Miller was discouraged when he began to see the sons and daughters of his earlier clients coming to him for help. Despite his years of work, the next generations of the same families were still firmly clutched in poverty’s grip. What Miller was witnessing in San Francisco was a reflection of the failure of our country’s nearly 50-year-old “war on poverty.”

Then-mayor of Oakland Jerry Brown was similarly discouraged and he asked Miller to think outside the box about innovations that could help eliminate poverty. Ruminating over the challenge, Miller found himself returning again and again to thoughts of his mother: to her fierce determination to bring her kids to America from Mexico and her belief in a future full of possibility for them. She was a single mother whose resourcefulness and determination to succeed helped Miller graduate from Berkeley and become an engineer. But he realized how much better access and support she could have had if she’d connected with other families that shared her values, culture, and beliefs. This is how America’s great waves of immigrants survived and eventually thrived. In Miller’s narrative, he thrived. His sister was not so lucky, as she struggled throughout her life to lift herself out of crisis mode. And Miller’s mother’s uphill path led to her early passing. His family’s struggles acutely inform his work with the poor.

Miller also pondered our current needs-based system, which provides a strong safety net to those in crisis—but which offers little to those who exist just above the “crisis” line and concluded, “The fundamental problems isn’t the safety net. The fundamental problem is that we don’t have a benefit structure that really, really recognizes initiative, unless you’re rich.”[i] Miller believed there was a huge pool of untapped capacity in this ignored population. Miller’s FII offers a markedly different approach for those looking to break the crushing cycle of poverty. In demonstration projects over the past 10 years, FII has proven that its model, which groups low-income families and allows them to access and share resources, provide support to each other and solve their own problems, is spectacularly successful. With this new approach, Miller began seeing results. Here is one example:

  • When Maria Perez and her family joined the Family Independence Initiative (FII) demonstration project in San Francisco they established a goal of creating their own janitorial business. It just so happened that, at that moment, their eldest daughter was starting high school and newly developing an interest in the arts. Maria and her husband soon realized that they valued her educational opportunity above all else, even that long-held dream of owning their own business. As a result, the family reprioritized and made the education of their seven children their chief financial goal. That was eight years ago. Today, education is still where the Perez family focuses its financial resources. They felt empowered and able to change their minds and make that decision, a cornerstone of FII. Control and choice are oft-mentioned and fundamental components of FII’s success. So, too, are connection and community.

FII enrolls families who have organized themselves into shared-affinity groups of about a half dozen families. The group members—(significantly, not social workers or programs) help each other and hold each other accountable; they quickly learn that it is hugely reinforcing to be surrounded by a group of friends who are all trying to do the same thing. “Oh my God, I’m not the only one struggling and I’m not the only one with bigger problems,” is what FII Fellow Maria Perez remembers thinking when she first joined her group in San Francisco. In 2012, FII premiered Up2gether, an online network that connects families currently in demonstration projects with “allies” who have access to additional social and financial capital to further strengthen that mentor/group bond.

FII enrollees learn to become agents of change. FII staff are not allowed to help them, beyond directing them to resources when asked. The staff’s role, instead, is to learn from the families. Miller used his engineering degree to design an online data tracking system, and FII provides each family in the program with a computer. Every month, each family reports on a variety of data points via the online tracking system: how much has your income changed; have your kids’ grades changed; have your savings changed; did you help somebody; did somebody help you? For each action they report, FII pays them $30—incentivizing the reporting of the action. It also provides the family with an important opportunity for self-reflection.

This relatively small investment (averaging about $2400 a year per family) is paying huge dividends, about 2.2x (Per their website, “On average, families’ income grows to $5,265 (2.2 times the investment) and their assets by $5,351 (2.3 times the investment”). At the end of two years, FII participants report 20% higher earnings and a 62% decrease in dependence on subsidies such as TANF and SNAP.  According to their March 28, 2017 newsletter, “at enrollment, the average yearly income for an FII family of four is $23,820 or 97% of the federal poverty threshold. After two years, the average yearly income for that same family climbs to $32,088 or 30% above the threshold…  19% of FII families have their own business, and … higher median income than families without, $650 more” 

Several thousand people have been enrolled in FII since the first project began in Oakland in 2001. Subsequent two-year demonstration projects have been held in San Francisco, Oahu, and Boston. The results extend well beyond the end of the projects. As an example, more than two years after families had received any support from FII, a survey of Oakland families indicated income was up 70% (by comparison, a 2008 Census Bureau study reports that 97% of all people cycled above and below the poverty threshold over a three-year period).The projects are in great demand because they have been proven to work. In addition to Boston, San Francisco, and Oakland, demonstration projects have been launched in Fresno, New Orleans, and Detroit

FII then created the FII Mobility Institute and is developing a Partnership Training Program. Both efforts allow FII to better share their approaches and principles with those interested in implementing them. Two  mobility innovations that are comprised in the programs are the Character Loan Program, which broaden traditional underwriting used by lending institutions by incorporating a “character” component and Credit-building Lending Circles, which encourage families to organize and run their own lending circles within FII.  Miller writes in a paper for the New America Foundation:

Trusting low-income families with money and connections, thus giving them control and choice in their lives, is what led to their success in our demonstration projects. Their success shows that it is possible to recreate part of the environment in which middle- and upper-income families exist—one that relies on personal ownership and responsibility, access and accountability to networks of colleagues who provide opportunities and access to small amounts of capital in increments over time.[ii]

If the first decade was about proving the efficacy of his model, the second will be about advocating for the system and policy change that will create the environment that rewards incentive at all echelons of society. FII’s vision for the future incorporates systemic changes, including to more accurately communicate the resourcefulness and capacity of lower income people. Funders must allow program approaches that provide help based on family and community initiative and strengths. Policymakers, funders and leaders must seek direct feedback from the consumers of the programs they create, and respond to that feedback. The target families must self-organize and advocate for themselves and their communities.  

For Maria Perez and the thousands of other individuals enrolled in FII over the past decade, their capacity for growth has been realized. Thanks to its clear vision for the future, it is the hope that millions more will have the opportunity to experience the FII springboard to mobility.
Nonprofit Nutshell: The Family Independence Initiative (FII) is a national center for innovating new strength-based approaches for economic and social mobility. FII operates under the assumption that most low-income families are capable of taking tangible steps towards establishing control and choice in their lives. Since 2001 FII has been partnering with low-income families to show that investing in their strengths and initiative delivers more powerful, sustainable, and cost-effective outcomes. President and Founder Maurice Lim Miller was appointed by President Obama to serve on the White House Council for Community Solutions, is a MacArthur Fellow, and a 2012 recipient of an Elfenworks In Harmony with Hope award.

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