Our nation’s safety net programs are in a double bind. Demand for them is spiking. More Americans are now living in poverty than at any point since our country started measuring it. Many families are entering poverty for the first time, after falling from the security of the middle class. Millions more had been teetering on poverty’s edge. At the same time, government officials at the federal, state, and local levels are facing a fiscal crisis, moving to curtail spending on many social programs in the face of a weakened economy and reduced tax revenues.
Given the competing pressures of increased demand and depleted resources, the time is right to examine cost effective antipoverty approaches with potential to do more with less—to help families get on their feet and climb the economic ladder, but at a lower cost than traditional programs.
The Family Independence Initiative (FII) offers a way to re-imagine how to support struggling families.
The Family Independence Initiative is a nonprofit, community-based organization that is considered an on-the-ground social laboratory for new strategies to tackle poverty. At its core, the Family Independence Initiative approach is both radical and as old as our republic. Their philosophy is that low-income people can advance together if we re-ignite the resource sharing, mutual support, and role modeling that has historically helped immigrant families leave poverty behind. They model new policies that reward strength and initiative (as opposed to need) and are led by the families themselves, rather than programs or professional caseworkers.
As part of the Family Independence Initiative, working poor families self-organize into peer support groups. They set personal goals for their families and obtain cash payments for reporting monthly progress, such as raising children’s grades, improving their credit score, or building their savings. Every month, participating families log onto an online reporting system to record what actions they took. They also meet monthly with their peer group to discuss their challenges and successes. Proponents of FII’s approach cite this combination of supportive social networks, consistent benchmarking of progress, and—most importantly—personalized paths out of poverty designed by the families themselves, as the key ingredients of the approach’s success.
In each of the Family Independence Initiative’s community demonstrations, participating families have made impressive strides. The Initiative’s leadership asserts that their approach is less costly than some traditional anti-poverty approaches, in part because most resources go directly to participating families rather than professional staff and overhead. At the outset, the total cost was $207 per person per month according to an external evaluation; now that the project is up and running, the per person monthly cost has declined to approximately $54.
While research on the Family Independence Initiative is limited, the initial findings compel policy makers and advocates to examine its philosophical underpinnings and its approaches, and consider how similar models could be implemented into state or national programs.
There are two parts to this issue brief. First, we describe the origins and thinking behind the Family Independence Initiative, and summarize their reported results. Second, we extract the key principles that guide their work and put forward potentially promising policy directions that merit further exploration. This issue brief is a sister paper to an essay, “The Uphill Battle to Scale an Innovative Antipoverty Approach: The Experience of the Family Independence Initiative,” written by Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative.
Section One: A New Approach to Ending the Cycle of Poverty
Inspiration and Origins
The Family Independence Initiative was formed to test a theory that low-income people can advance together by re-igniting the resource sharing, mutual support, and role modeling that historically has helped immigrant and socially excluded minority families exit poverty.
Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative, grew disillusioned after a long career in the nonprofit sector. For 22 years he led Asian Neighborhood Design, a San Francisco nonprofit lauded for its work offering affordable housing, job training, and counseling. President Bill Clinton even invited Miller to sit in his box at the 1999 State of Union address.
Despite such recognition and praise, Miller says he rarely saw anyone truly exit poverty and make it into the middle class. What bothered Miller most was when his clients’ children grew up and started showing up for services themselves.
Miller thought about how his own family and other immigrants he’d grown up with had left poverty for good. They’d done it by relying on each other, sharing skills and connections. They pooled money and loaned it to each other for things like starting small businesses, a common technique in low-income ethnic communities.
Miller’s mother had only a third-grade education when she came to the United States from Mexico. She worked hard as a file clerk and book keeper to make sure Miller succeeded. Miller thought it might be more promising to empower mothers like her, rather than make them reliant on professionals or outside services, he said.
Miller decided to develop an action research project that would answer two questions:
1) What would happen if low-income families of all backgrounds had access to some of the funds traditionally spent on professionals to help the families? And;
2) What would the result be if families were instead encouraged to turn to friends and social networks for help and direction?
Miller started by sketching out a plan to re-ignite methods used by immigrants to build better lives. He wanted to challenge families to take actions they thought would lift them out of poverty—whether that was by improving children’s grades, saving more, starting a business, investing in new skills, finding a new job, or even helping a friend find a new job. They could then earn small amounts of money for self-reporting their progress. Instead of hiring staff to monitor progress or run meetings, Miller devised a way to pay the families to do that at a fraction of the cost.
Contending that no one gets out of poverty alone, Miller wanted to enroll families in groups so that they could turn to each other for help, instead of to a caseworker or a program.
In the fall of 2000, Miller left his job as the executive director of Asian Neighborhood Design to start the Family Independence Initiative.