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Journal of Hispanic Policy

Topic / Social Innovation and Philanthropy

Transforming Latino Social Mobility: An Interview with Maurice Lim Miller

Maurice Lim Miller is a social innovator who, as founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative, enables low-income families to build security and stability. Mr. Lim Miller ran a successful community development agency in San Francisco and Oakland, California for 22 years and was honored [1] by President Clinton for his work. He also serves on the board of the California Endowment. He is a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions, an Ashoka Fellow, and a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (1968) and a master’s in design (1978) from University of California, Berkeley.


Maurice, it is such an honor to speak with you. You’ve done such innovative work in trying to address poverty here in the United States, especially addressing poverty from the angle of prevention as opposed to crisis social services made available through our system. Family Independence Initiative (FII) is an example to follow. How did you get involved in poverty work and what FII does?


My involvement in this work is rooted in my own personal story. My mother moved here[2] from Mexico with her two kids to live the American Dream—the promise that if you work really hard you can make it, and your kids, the next generation, will be better off. She was willing to work hard; she always did, especially for her kids.

My mother was trying to get us into good schools, but it was tough, there were all these class differences to navigate. My sister, a teenager trying to inject herself into this new world got in with the wrong guy, became pregnant at 16 and moved out of the house with him. He took her to New York and was pretty abusive. So, about a year into being in America, my mother had lost one of the two kids she came to America to save.

My mother was pretty devastated. She was determined that at least one of her kids would succeed, and so she then spent the rest of her life, which was not real long, to make sure that I went to college and that I was positioned to take care of my sister and her kids. She told me I had to be an engineer or a doctor and sacrificed a lot so I could go to U.C. Berkeley. So, I did graduate as an engineer and my role was to take care of my sister.

But my mother was getting sick and was going to need operations. What she did not want is for the resources she intended to go to me and my sister to go to her. She had made those sacrifices for our success. At the time that I was going to start spending money to take care of her, she went to Las Vegas and took her own life.

So in my mid-20s I lost my mother. My sister’s life was still really screwed up, and her kids were going through a lot of post-trauma. We came to this country on the promise of the American Dream, but only one of us was on a better path. My mother was gone, my sister and her kids were doing badly. How could that happen? Especially when there was a war on poverty going on?

Out of graduate school, I was offered a job in a non-profit. I was curious about this issue of the War on Poverty. I wanted to know how people like my mother could be helped so they wouldn’t have to make such extreme sacrifices. So I took this job in the non-profit with the intent of really understanding if there were ways to help families like mine.

That is how I got involved in this work and also how I came to understanding why the War on Poverty wasn’t working and that we need a different approach.


So how does Family Independence Initiative help those families, who live in poverty and have the potential to get themselves out of poverty?


The short answer is that we learn from low-income families about the kinds of things that help them to scaffold success. We create tools and resources that low-income families test and they tell us what is helpful—and we can see what makes a difference. We have essentially turned the system that grew out of the War on Poverty on its head: Instead of paid professionals, low-income people are the agents of change and decision-making in their lives. Instead of penalizing progress, people can access resources as they move up. Instead of perceiving and treating low-income families as needy, families are respected for their capacity and resourcefulness. Instead of building a sense of dependence on programs, families forge strong relationships with friends creating social capital, interdependence, and mutual aid.

We have these very wrong and damaging stereotypes about poor people that justify the system as it is. People are hard working, and they are smart and capable. But we are told they are either lazy moochers or helpless victims and neither is true. Studies by the Census Bureau and others have shown that more than 95 percent of families work very hard. [3] The movement back and forth, above and below the poverty line isn’t because people are “lazy”—people are working and often at multiple jobs, whatever they can do—but the reason so many people fall below the poverty line is a reflection of the conditions of low-waged work and existence of lack of access to resources, not about people’s capacity. Our starting point is that people have the capacity. What they lack are the resources to leverage that capacity.

So FII’s work is based on initiative, not on need. That is a fundamental problem of our current system—that it is needs based. This problem manifests in many different ways. I had my very first social sector job doing construction training with gang kids to help them to leave the gangs. These two kids walked in when I had one slot left. When I looked at their applications, they were pretty much the same—income, all the background, and they both had dropped out of school. But one kid that had a criminal record for robbery, he had just gotten out of juvenile hall. I had one slot left. I looked at both of them and I said, well, Richard gets the slot. They were surprised, they thought that Ben was going to get it because he is the one that was taking the initiative to come in. I said, “Well, enrollment is based on need, and Richard just got out of jail, he had a criminal record, therefore he has more need, and the slot has to go to him. That is the way my funding is set up.” Richard turned to Ben and he kind of smiled and said, “See, you should have gone on that robbery with me.” I am sitting there listening to the message I had just sent to these two teenagers.

For the next 20 years, I ran services that were basically sending the same message: the way to get services is to be needy and the way to get in the front of the line is to be even more needy, and you have to show that. My mother had a ton of pride and self-respect; she could not go through that. She would not give herself up to a system that wanted to look at her as needy and weak, and she was talented. She only had a third grade education–in Mexico when she grew up they just did not educate women—but the fact is she was really smart. When she would go into a welfare office—and I think she only did it once—they wanted her to make them feel sorry for her, and she just could not take that. That is why she never got health care. And here I was sending the same message.

By late nineties, I really started questioning a service approach to impacting poverty, which is essentially how the War on Poverty was structured. It looks at need, it looks at services, it looks at professionals really counseling. That was happening from mid-nineties to late nineties. I was becoming very critical of my own work. If we were considered one of the best in the country, then I was critical of the entire sector.


So what does FII do to address this systemic problem?


We have developed a different approach that is about initiative, community, choice and control. Factors that are missing from our current system, but that are essential for people to succeed– for anyone to succeed no matter their circumstances. We didn’t develop a new “program”—we are an approach, an approach that’s based on learning from the people we are seeking to help and following their lead. They have the answers. And we are working to have others in the sector adopt this approach as well.

This approach came about in the late 1990s. I got invited by President Bill Clinton to the State of the Union Address to honor my work. About four months after I went to the White House, I got a call from then Mayor of Oakland, now Governor Jerry Brown. He took me to task. He knew my work, and I was on a foundation board and we were going to bring in $10 million of youth programs into Oakland—and he was angry. Most mayors would be happy when you are bringing more programs. But he said, “You guys are a bunch of poverty pimps. You’re just creating jobs for yourselves because you never really impact poverty.” At that point in time, I was already feeling like I wasn’t impacting poverty. This was after a 30-some year War on Poverty and we hadn’t impacted poverty. We were helping people, making poverty more tolerable—better housing, or a little bit more food, etc. Our programs had not actually accomplished what my mother had managed to do—she had gotten me totally out. And so I was not going to argue the poverty pimp thing with Jerry Brown.

But then, what he did is he said, “Look. If you could do anything you wanted to do, money was not a problem, regulations, anything, and you really wanted to impact poverty, what would you do? Show up at my office next month and tell me.”

I offered to create a data tracking system to help us learn what families do to improve their lives. I was a little bit of an engineer, I like data. What I would do is offer to pay these families and these parents to show us what they would do to get their own families out, and out of that we are bound to learn something.

And learning from our history, I said, I would enroll families with their friends. In order for us to learn what they have the capacity to do, none of my staff will be allowed to give them any counseling and direction, and if my staff does that I will fire them. If we keep it really clean, we will see what they do, and track their data. He thought that was interesting. He threw his weight behind it, and that, essentially, is the Family Independence Initiative.

We engage families directly within their natural communities. They have to choose their friends. We do not bring them together. If they do not want to organize their friends, then we do not enroll them. Ultimately, everybody has some friends that they end up on the couch with when they have trouble, so we enroll groups of friends.

We provide a computer and do auditing every three months, but we don’t tell them what to do. We tell them “its your turn to show us what you can do.” I have actually fired four staff for advising families. The groups meet monthly and strategize, set priorities and help each other. They can earn an average about $160 a month, depending on family size, because we know it takes time to report online. And we get to see the data, and perhaps most importantly they get to see their data. Many families use the data as a tool to keep track of their own progress. And we ask them to help us understand the stories behind the data. Not only have we seen families do significantly better, but we’ve seen ripple effects in communities, where people hear about these successes and they are inspired to do more too.

After two years, in our initial demonstration in Oakland in incomes, on average, had jumped 27 percent. Debt was down, savings went up, and people started buying homes.[4] They started a bunch of businesses. These were similar to the kinds of successes that we saw historically—communities moving forward together without “professional direction”.


Has that same sort of success trended in the ensuing years? What national or state policies can more effectively encourage this kind of poverty reduction?


Yes, the successes are replicated in communities we’ve partnered with across the country. I’ll tell you about the income rise, but what underlies the impressive increases in income and savings is people’s sense of control they start exhibiting over their own lives because they are not waiting for a professional to give them counseling, they are just acting on the things that make sense to them. And families report that this sense of control along with the supportive communities is at the heart of their success.

Yes, we tried it in Hawaii to see how this would work given the cultural differences there. Even the issue of race plays out very differently in Hawaii. And we saw the same impacts. Incomes jumped eighteen percent in only twenty months. Then, we tried it in San Francisco, and again, twenty-three percent. When we went to Boston, the two year data showed a thirteen percent income jump. These rises in income are correlated to their people’s greater sense of control, their increased sense of community and the ways that they take more initiative to improve their quality of life. We are trying to develop measures for this sense of control.

Families really need each other. What we’ve seen is that as their incomes go up they are also building community and taking initiative, it is all correlated.

This premium on taking initiative and turning to friends and social networks for support and problem solving is missing from our current system. But it’s how I and other middle and upper class people do things—we assert initiative and turn to friends when we need to get a leg up. It’s a way I run my life, I use my social network. If I have some legal questions or concerns I can call my friend, an attorney. I can look to my networks for opportunities for my kids, referrals and recommendations about schools and programs. I look at my social network and money to backstop all this. When you have a strong social network, if your car breaks down, you can still get to work.

The systems that work for people with more resources work for everyone else too. And the social capital that is produced through social networks is really valuable. So we need policy that at minimum does not undermine social capital, and at best can advance it.

One of the areas of FII work is to develop new streams of resources that respond to initiative, that respond to community demand so that they are relevant. We need to see this work happening on a national level.


What is a good proxy, then, of these sorts of measures of success? What is the best proxy of the qualitative data collected? How does the policy structure need to change? What way do national or state policies need to be crafted in order to address poverty more effectively?


The proxies that we are using are the standard ones: income, debt, savings, assets, asset levels, and etcetera. But these don’t always accurately measure what is important to people. For example, in Hawaii, a lot of the families said that for them, success is not measured materially. It is the sense of community, the rebuilding of community and culture that matters most. When we used the proxy of income, they felt mischaracterized. The fact is that we have not yet developed solid ways to measure people’s sense of efficacy and initiative. It can be done, and we are moving in that direction. Some countries are looking at happiness factors and those measures are gaining some credibility. In this country, we cannot get policy people and funders to pay attention to that yet.


How much of an impact has and can FII’s model have on Latino communities? What has been proven, and what potential do you see?


Communities that are well networked, that attend the same cultural and community institutions and that have a lot of cohesion (that speaking the same language can bring)[7] and spend time with each other—can do a lot with this model. And also because of these active social networks, when something positive happens there can be a rapid ripple effect throughout the community.

Most Latino communities are still very well networked, and people talk with one another, they go to the same churches, they have a sense of community.

In Oakland, we had a cohort of Latino families who were refugees from the war in El Salvador. A couple from this group bought a home involving a predatory lender. Ultimately their community helped them save their home. Their group and social network came over and fixed the place up which allowed them to refinance and keep their home. Amazingly within two months, every Salvadoran refugee family in that cohort started saving money here instead of sending it back to El Salvador. And within a year and a half, they all owned homes. It completely changed a community’s understanding about building assets in America—not just the people involved in FII.

The next example involves San Francisco and East Boston, where there are very large Latino communities: Colombian, Salvadoran, you name it. In San Francisco, the families are largely Mexican. A Latino group in San Francisco started traditional lending circles. People put in money every month and take turns borrowing it. Some of the Latino Boston families heard about it, and started one too. The lending circle in East Boston started growing faster than in the community in San Francisco. It was because of the way the Latino communities in Boston were networked. Once there was a positive example, the practice started spreading much, much more quickly.


What advice do you have for current and future policymakers and graduates?


Measure the time that you spend talking to people and learning from them. If you do not spend more time talking to those you want to help instead of spending time talking to one another, you’ll never understand the issue.

Businesses spend a lot of time trying to understand the consumer, because the consumer has the money that they want, right? Well, the non-profit sector and people coming to be helpful in low income communities spend very little time trying to understand the market from the consumer’s point of view.

I’ve had people say, “I’m leaving the private sector because in the private sector my ideas will not fly because my boss says the consumers do not want my product. But, I have a great product and in the non-profit sector I know I can do what I want.” The sector, and the low-income communities being serviced become a kind of playground for people who can access funding. Families are looked at as recipients who should feel really grateful instead of consumers whose knowledge and experience is the bottom line.


Congratulations on being recognized as a MacArthur Genius. How does this affect FII, and what opportunities will it bring?


I guess I am a little surprised how much exposure and how much validation it has brought very quickly. Conceptually, what we are pushing makes common sense, but it is not readily acceptable because the system is just not set up that way. When the President of the MacArthur Foundation called me he said, “So this is counterintuitive, is not it?” And I said, “Yeah. It is counterintuitive to the way the sector has been set up. But it’s not counterintuitive to how we naturally live our lives.”

The award is opening up many opportunities across sectors. There are people who have felt like what we’ve been doing makes sense to them and now with the validation from the MacArthur Foundation they are willing to step up and look at how they can adopt or advance our approach. It’s a very exciting time.


Maurice, thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us.