The Initiative works to provide families living in poverty with their own means of improving their lives. This is a deviation from the norm of the social sector, which involves providing programs or direct services to these families.
From the Initiative’s “About Us” page:
The fifty-year war on poverty has made living in poverty more tolerable but it has not made it more escapable.
Census data shows that within four years, 75% of families living below the poverty line move above it, yet 50% of these families slip back into poverty in five years.
After tracking hundreds of families over the past 15 years, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) has discovered that cycling in and out of poverty is not due to a lack of family initiative. Instead, this cycle can be traced to well-intentioned but inadequate governmental and charitable policies and practices that have:
Lack of Information: A lack of reliable information on the creative ways in which families achieve economic and social mobility
Resource Gap: Limited access to affordable capital which fuels families’ efforts to achieve their goals and dreams
Individual Focus: A misplaced focus on individual achievement that overlooks the power of communities to lift people into the middle class, just as communities have done for hundreds of years
It’s clear that current approaches to lifting people out of poverty aren’t working. How often have we heard the phrase: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” And yet so many of our services for the impoverished are plugs in a sinking ship, trying to merely mitigate the damage that has already been done.
The Initiative takes a different approach:
“We trust and invest in low-income families as well as the solutions they discover on their own. We start with the knowledge that we have underestimated the potential and resourcefulness of low-income communities to improve their own financial and general well-being. We know there are systematic barriers that challenge families’ ability to leverage their assets, strengths, and capacities. Our work is all about removing these barriers. We do away with the traditional top-down approach to fighting poverty by letting families themselves be the change agents.”
The Initiative is likely to receive broad bipartisan support, and therefore increase the likelihood of success, because of its focus on independence. Rather than providing direct services or programs (i.e. “handouts” as called by some), the Initiative encourages families and their communities to rely on each other.
In the Times, Initiative founder Mauricio Lim Miller acknowledged his own blind spots in this area while leading the nonprofit Asian Neighborhood Design organization:
I ran a program for 20 years. But I wouldn’t want my own family to use my own services, even though they were among the best in the country. Once I had money, I saw that the system for people with money runs very different than the social service system. When I get my kids tutors at Sylvan Learning Center, they ask, “Do you want tutors in the evening or afternoon? What works for you?” When I offered tutoring through my program, families had to take what I gave them, and I had to do what the funders required.
Additionally, Lim Miller puts pressure on the social sector to recognize the talents of families and to show them respect.
“[Social workers] have really good hearts and they want things to change, but it’s difficult to accept that you may be part of the problem, that in your desire to help, you may be playing into negative stereotypes that poor families have internalized…
…All of us who want to make a difference need to learn how to be follower leaders—to use our positions and our privilege and access to money in a way that actually bolsters the initiative that the families take. But not to lead. It’s hard to stand back and trust families. But this change in perspective—to respect poor people—is what this country needs right now.”
I wrote last week about stereotypes—not all stereotypes are bad or acted on with ill intentions, but they do create a shell of a person in one’s mind that misses out on the many nuances within. The social sector often views those living in poverty as people in need of our assistance, when in reality they can provide their own assistance, thank you very much, so long as everyone gets out of their way.
Image: Family Independence Initiative