One Man's Approach to Fighting Poverty

Allow me to introduce Maurice Lim Miller.

Maurice is mild of voice, but with a steely conviction. His manner reassuring even as he intensely engages you.

Maurice is a frontline worker in the campaign to bring economic justice to America. You won't find Maurice at academic conferences or on book tours. I met him via the Opportunity Collaboration.

Maurice is, first and foremost, a pragmatist. For him, economic justice is not an ideological issue, a matter of class or even a policy debate among thinkers of good will. He treats poverty not so much as a crusade, but as a puzzle to be deciphered and solved.

Maurice is a community worker. He sees the world as individual neighborhoods, literally blocks of neighbors.

Maurice is in the pride business. In his own words, "Community members must feel pride in their elders, culture and religion." I don't know Maurice's political leanings, but he sure speaks like he is a member of the Republican establishment.

He adds, "The biggest obstacle to reducing poverty is not low-income communities' lack of capacity or unwillingness to change, but society's stereotype that they are unable to help themselves..." Now, there Maurice sounds more like a left-of-center, grassroots community organizer.

Maurice's perspective is at neither end of the political-policy divide about poverty. Sensibly, he notes, "...most anti-poverty programs do not support the strengths...of low-income families... To help people end the cycle of poverty, we must reward progress..."

In 2001, Maurice launched an organization called Family Independence Initiative (FII) in Oakland, Calif. Eight African-American families, 11 Mien families and six Salvadoran refugee families were offered a simple deal: Make verifiable progress (improved grades for their kids in school, finding new jobs, etc.) and earn $500 per quarter for two years.

With hard-nosed expediency, Maurice dangled a small bit of incentive money to catalyze new community behaviors and norms. The results?

According to FII, an average jump of 27 percent in family income, new business launched, new home purchases and a genuine sense of neighborly support among the participants. FII is now in Hawaii, San Francisco and soon, New Orleans.

Modest, steady gains. Nothing flashy.

The secret sauce here is obvious. Social capital is the rock bed of economic development. Neighbors helping neighbors is an American tradition as old as barn raising, community sand-bagging to protect against floods and the National Guard.

In the end, what FII's program has uncovered is the potency of the working poor (think maids, gardeners, farm workers, restaurant hands) to rebuild America from the inner cities outward. With a modest bit of attention and small, but cleverly leveraged, incentives, it can be done. Ask Maurice.