“Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong”

Graduates in caps and gowns

I’m a fan and faithful listener of EconTalk, a podcast hosted by Russ Roberts of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A few weeks ago, I was stopped in my tracks by his interview with Mauricio “Lim” Miller, an Oakland, California-based social services pioneer and MacArthur “Genius” fellowship recipient, an honor he earned as the founder of the non-profit Family Independence Initiative (FII). I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Others may be familiar with Lim Miller’s backstory and career; I was not. The son of a Mexican immigrant mother who worked multiple jobs to get her son into and through UC Berkeley where he studied to be an engineer, Miller ended up working in social services, ultimately running an organization called Asian Neighborhood Design, which focused on tenant rights, job training, and youth development, including a program in the Bay area that trained gang members to work in construction. His work was successful enough to draw the attention of then-President Bill Clinton, who invited Miller to the State of the Union address twenty years ago.

But even as he sat in the Capitol with the First Lady, Rosa Parks, and other VIP guests, Miller was harboring secret doubts. “It was increasingly clear to me that my work wasn’t fundamentally changing things for the families I had been trying to help,” he writes in his 2017 book, The Alternative (which I ordered online even before the podcast had ended), “I also knew that my mother would never have utilized the services I offered.”

That’s quite an admission. But the social services sector’s primary accomplishment is to “make living in poverty tolerable,” argues Miller, a phrase he attributes to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who challenged him at about the same time he was having his dark night of the soul, to come up with an alternative approach to make poverty escapable. If you could do anything you wanted, if money and restrictions were not an issue, Brown wanted to know, what would you do? Miller’s initial answer was inchoate. “Well, I don’t know what I would do. But my mother figured out how to get me out of poverty,” he told the Mayor. “I think every mother, father, or guardian will know the best way to get their families’ lives together.” Instead of paying staff and social workers, he suggested, let’s pay families to show us what they would do.

That impulse guided the formation of FII, which Miller says has proved that families like his “are not in this country for charity or to be criminals. People are not happy on welfare and don’t want to live in tolerable poverty.” FII also proves that when friends work together to improve their lives “their example becomes contagious” leading to faster and more effective social change than any program or policy can match. His approach rewards hard work and resourcefulness, and expands contributions to society. “This alternative incorporates aspect that will be attractive to people across the political spectrum, bringing us all together,” Miller says.

The subtitle of The Alternative is “most of what you believe about poverty is wrong,” and Miller spent time both in the book and on Roberts’s podcast unpacking census data that shows only about 3 percent of Americans, not 15 percent, remain mired in poverty. For most, poverty is episodic, with families cycling in and out based on lost jobs or other crises. Of course, people need assistance in a crisis, Miller argues, “but we need a totally different and separate approach if we want people to build full, independent lives.” Listening to Miller expound on that approach is like drinking from a fire hose. But there are two first impression ideas that I found myself returning to over and over in the days after listening to him. One may already be evident in education reform; the other I’m uncertain how to apply.

The first is “positive deviance,” uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies—“role models of what’s possible” in Miller’s description—that others in a community adopt and emulate. Historical examples abound of immigrants dominating certain trades and industries, such as Irish-born police officers in Boston, Polish-born immigrants in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, and more recently, Cambodians in Los Angeles opening donut or auto repair shops. In post-Civil War Oklahoma, Miller notes, “newly freed African Americans built over fifty all-Black townships, each its own micro-economy since Blacks were largely excluded from doing business with white Americans.” In each case there were no government services or nonprofit social service programs. “Sharing and mutuality was key,” he observes.

You can see a version of this at work in high-performing New York City charter schools where West African families are visibly over-represented. Not long ago, I interviewed a pair of South Bronx mothers who described themselves and referred to each other as sisters, even though they were unrelated. One was from Senegal; the other from Burkina Faso. I was curious to know how their kids and so many of their friends and neighbors’ children had ended up in the same local charter school. “When we have this good thing, we watch out for each one,” explained one of the mothers. “We do it the African way.”

It’s less clear how to apply to education another of Miller’s big ideas: simply getting out of the way. The belief that we should avoid “deficit thinking” in working with low-income families is nearly a bromide, but Miller’s means it in the most literal way. On Roberts’s podcast and in his book, he describes firing staff members for giving advice and support to families. In his view, that’s evidence that they don’t truly trust families enough or have faith in their resourcefulness or ability to help each other. “As examples of mutuality have grown, what we have found is that every time my staff has stepped back,” he writes, “the families have stepped up and their solutions are much more relevant to their circumstance or culture than ours could ever be.”

You know you’re in the presence of powerful ideas when at once you’re knocked off-balance by their undeniable rightness, but can’t conceive of how to apply them—and you can’t let it rest. We recite the homily of empowering parents and rejecting deficit thinking in education. But just as surely, we don’t really trust low-income parents. If we did, vouchers would be less controversial, and we likely wouldn’t insist as adamantly on the muscular, test-driven accountability schemes of the past few decades “to ensure high-quality choices.” Vouchers or cash transfers might seem like the obvious answer, but Miller seems not to agree. “Just offering money, as with passing policies or providing services does not change the sense of control people need over their lives,” he notes. Education barely rates a mention in his book, but he does suggest the poor “want choices that let them take control.”

Perhaps there is no straight translation of Miller’s way of thinking to education. Maybe he’d just fire us all for trying to help families instead of trusting them and staying out of their way. But it’s been awhile since I’ve found myself as captivated and challenged as I was listening to Lim Miller on EconTalk or by reading his book. The Alternative is on my summer reading list for rereading and reflection. I urge you to put it on your list, too.

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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