Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his War on Poverty. Amid a growing debate about wealth inequality, this week’s anniversary has a lot of people talking about the current extent of poverty and how to understand its causes and effects. A recently released study by the Public Policy Institute of California suggests about one in five people in Bay Area counties can be classified as poor.
Mauricio Lim Miller, head of the Oakland-based Family Independence Initiative, says it’s time to adopt a new approach to dealing with poverty — one that recognizes that low-income families have the initiative and capacity to move themselves and their communities out of poverty.
Miller received a 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and serves on the White House Council for Community Solutions. KQED’s Mina Kim spoke Wednesday with Miller about his ideas on addressing poverty. Listen to the extended interview:
And here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
Mina Kim: Mr. Miller, you note the overall poverty rate has barely budged in 50 years. How would you assess the impact of the war on poverty in the Bay Area?
Mauricio Lim Miller: I would assess that the war on poverty in the Bay Area is probably the same as the United States, which is that it really has helped people to not have the bottom fall out from under them. So if they’re in a crisis or whatever, it is a net. It is not a springboard up.
Kim: How did you start the Family Independence Initiative?
Miller: The “how” or the “why?”
Miller: The “why” was because after running social services for 20 years, I realized my mother would not approve of them, and I would not send my family, that was still struggling, through the services. So if I wouldn’t send my family, would I send any family? I came from a single mom, Mexican, and there were two kids. And I knew my mother’s capacity. I saw my sister’s capacity. That they worked really hard. They were really talented. And I didn’t know that other families were like ours. Your mother is your mother.
The “how” really has a lot to do with Jerry Brown as mayor. And it was, “Well, let’s see what the capacity is of families to really lead their own change and then work together and help one another.” No social worker, no nothing. They could earn a little bit of the money that we spent trying to help them by giving us the data and information. So we stared collecting information. Then, within two years we saw incomes jump 27 percent on average. African-Americans doing better than the Asians. Latinos start buying homes. It was really fascinating. All of the sudden you start realizing that all of the resourcefulness that is hidden just to survive – when you give it a little bit of encouragement and access to some capital – that it can move forward.
Kim: So then, what are your strategies for helping people out of poverty? Sort of the social mobility beyond the net?
Miller: It really is to keep the safety net, because, you know, my sister came to this country with me. She’d get beat up, run away with her three kids, have a lot of emotional problems trying to deal with an abusive husband. And she needed the safety net. So, in crisis you really need it. As soon as my sister stabilized, she got a job and started moving forward. Her child care was taken away, her food stamps were taken away. And so the system itself didn’t really help propel her up.
So we really are calling for a separate system. Save the safety net. But a separate system of investing in people’s initiative.
Kim: Do you have any specific stories from Oakland or San Francisco families?
Miller: We had three single moms with infants, and they wanted to stay with their babies. They needed income. They needed to get work. And so how are you going to do that if you work, you don’t qualify for child care? And so they’re struggling with this, and they came up with this idea that what they would do is they would start a cleaning business – the three of them – and one of them would stay with the babies. The issue is who stays with the babies? They decided they’re going to rotate working and staying with the babies. They all get to spend time with all the infants. They both get to work, and then they split the profits from the work three ways. Now that’s something that no program could have figured out, because they had to work on their schedules and the personal trust that they have with one another.
Kim: The Family Independence Initiative is 13 years old, so you’ve had some time to test these strategies. What have you learned?
Miller: We’ve learned that society doesn’t really trust these families. The stereotype that low-income families need outsiders to help them, or they’re too lazy, those stereotypes are really deeply embedded in our society, which is really sad. And until we start getting to the stories of the initiative and resourcefulness that it takes to live when you’re poor, then that stereotype is not going to change.
Kim: Mr. Miller, thanks for talking to us.
Miller: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.