Taking Initiative

I was thrilled to have the work of Family Independence Initiative featured in a recent segment of PBS Need To Know. The show took an in-depth look at Solving Poverty in America, examining FII's self-help model and our insistence that low-income families should be in charge of their own change.

Watch Taking The Initiative on PBS. See more from Need To Know.

At the heart of my work is the knowledge that poor people are like everyone else, just with fewer resources -- that poor people are broke, not broken. And that what we need to reduce poverty and create more social and economic mobility is a new approach that encourages people to work together, offers incentives for success and keeps low-income people in the driver's seat.

One of the things I really like about the segment is that it captures how FII has set up an environment for people to get mutual support, access resources and ultimately to succeed on their own terms. As the FII participant Jolly Bugari says in the episode, "This is where you can find resources. If the upper class can mingle and help each other out, this is a good way that we can do it too."

Think about what middle class people do if they have a problem that needs solving. Let's say they want to make more money, and are looking for a better paying job or to start a new business. Or they're trying to figure out where to send their kid to college -- or preschool. Do they find a social worker and get plugged into a cookie-cutter program? No. Middle class people use social networks and access resources. And what we are saying is that low-income people can too.

The difference is that low-income people don't have as many readily available resources. And that is the work of FII -- developing ways for lower income people to have and harness more resources to fuel their progress.

At the end of the piece, the reporter Mona Iskander asks me about scaling the FII approach. And my response is that we can't. I answered this way because I firmly believe that the solution is not to create more "programs" and try to reproduce FII-type groups all over the country.

But that is not to say that there isn't anything we can do -- far from it. We need an alternative to the polarized choice between bootstrapping it and the social welfare paradigm. We need to create a range of incentives and resources that are right for low-income people, just the same way we have them for higher earners. And we need to incentivize social networking, because the resources people need to solve their problems are social as well as financial.

As Anne Stuhldreher, former senior fellow at the New American Foundation, says in the show, "In this country we have great incentives that help people save and invest in themselves: the home mortgage interest deductions, incentives that encourage people to save to send their kids to college. But the vast majority of them go to people who are making over $50,000. What FII is about is figuring out what types of incentives like those work for people at the lower end of the income scale."

In my next blog post, I will explore what philanthropy and government can do to create more opportunities for people to access resources and strengthen social networks. In the meantime, please watch the clip and join the conversation about a new way, that is in fact quite old, to create more social and economic mobility in America.