The contradiction and "The Alternative"

Three years into his first gig as a recruiter/trainer at a job skills program in San Francisco, Mauricio Lim Miller recognized a striking contradiction that changed the trajectory of his life and work. As a person whose family had overcome great personal hardship and who was now trying to help others do the same, he could not reconcile the way he ran his own life with the way he was expected to run a social service program. The proscriptive, top-down structure of so-called benefits programs like his emphasized the “deficits” of their clients and often sought to substitute narrow program rules for individual options. Those rules were sometimes contradictory (as when multiple programs were involved) and sometimes self-defeating (e.g. child-care subsidies that lapsed if a program participant earned a little too much money from work). Even worse, he became convinced that such service programs were conferring greater benefit on their employees than on their clients.

When he was invited to attend President Clinton’s State of the Union address as recognition for his work, Miller says he nearly declined out of guilt. As soon as he was given a chance by California Governor Jerry Brown to reshape the assistance available to poor families in his native Oakland, Miller began formulating what he calls The Alternative—a new approach to supporting families experiencing poverty by focusing on strengths and supporting individual efforts toward upward mobility. This approach characterizes a fast-growing effort called The Family Independence Initiative (FII). Miller’s new book chronicles his journey and the expansion of FII from California into Michigan and now Ohio.

The book’s premise is deceptively simple: Miller believes that both parts of the old “give a man a fish” aphorism are wrong. People aren’t fishing not necessarily due to a lack of knowledge; rather they lack the money for a pole or transportation to the water. Or they might not have the time to wait for the fish to bite because of family commitments. But assuming people “don’t know how to fish” and that large scale programs must exist to teach everyone has long been the default version of social service in the United States. Despite good intentions, this has led to paternalistic, expensive, and hidebound service-providing agencies that force poor families into the service pipeline and hold them there. They have been designed to address perceived “deficits” in people’s lives and they ignore–or even quash–families’ and communities’ own efforts to move upward.

The alternative approach, the one that animates FII, assumes nothing of families except that they are the “experts of their own lives” and provides nothing to families except support for what they are already working toward on their own. The key missing ingredients in traditional social services are client agency and choice, the very things that often define middle- and upper-class families. “Taking control away from people, or trying to induce them with carrots or sticks,” Miller writes, “is…the opposite of what most of us with privilege would accept.” While he doesn’t talk much about education except as a key recurring goal for the children of families he works with, those of us who support school choice should recognize this mindset and echo its aims.

The alternative approach is so revolutionary as to defy easy description–hence the need for a book to explain it and hence Miller’s well-deserved MacArthur Genius Award. It is an effort to empower families and communities to be their own change agents, mainly by telling them they can be—a new and different message for most FII families. I won’t rob readers of the pleasure of hearing Miller’s own account of the evolution, structure, and successes of FII, but other key features include:

  • Partnerships with families and communities are central. FII’s efforts are led by families that come voluntarily and recruit others to join. Goals are set by participants based on their needs—a community center here, a scholarship fund there, a babysitting co-op elsewhere.
  • Data gathering and analysis are the central “work.” FII staffers establish baseline family and community data, analyze progress toward participants’ goals, and publicize that progress both within and outside of the participating communities. Families are given computers and paid nominally for their data input time, which is considerable.
  • FII staffers do not “help” participants. In fact, Miller makes it clear that he has fired staffers for such simple acts as translating a letter for a family into their native language; families know what they need and will figure out how best to access it themselves.
  • Locating positive deviants (individuals with uncommon behaviors and strategies that enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges) and early change adopters to follow them are first steps of the data analysis process. Supporting their progress and making sure the community knows the success stories are the next steps toward the ultimate outcome of self-directed upward mobility.

Miller’s own mother would not take a “handout” while struggling to support her family, believing that action to be an admission of helplessness. But despite working three jobs at a time and having the talent to design and make clothing, investment in her strengths and abilities was nowhere to be found. So she struggled. Middle- and upper-class entrepreneurs can regularly access angel investors and seed capital to “bet” on their eventual success, while low-income entrepreneurs can perhaps access a loan that must be paid back, however low the interest might be. FII invests in the efforts of individuals and groups to provide for their own needs, working to nurture those positive deviants and early adopters (entrepreneurs, college graduates, community builders, etc.) to Gladwell’s tipping point. FII also tells the stories of positive change to show that, far from being “needy,” families experiencing poverty are resourceful and capable.

“Our experts and service providers have a very shallow, often siloed view of the complexity of life in and around the poverty level,” writes Miller. “If the various programs want to be helpful, as well as protective of their funding, they need to be more effective and efficient. They need to understand the issues from the perspective of those they want to help and not just the silo of help they represent. To truly assist in solving any problem they need to take direction from the very families they seek to help since they are the experts of their own lives.”

This novel perspective should resonate with the work of education reformers at least as much as it does with social service providers. Stagnant learning environments, low expectations, social promotion, education systems that are more rewarding for the adults working in them than the students supposedly learning in them, and college access without ensuring college readiness are all forms of well-intentioned “handouts” that end up doing more harm than good for the most part. Mauricio Miller’s efforts to change social service work into the type of supports his family truly needed–rather than a rigid and self-perpetuating pipeline of dubious “help”–could be a new pattern for education reform efforts going forward.

SOURCE: Mauricio L. Miller, The Alternative, Lulu Publishing Services (August, 2017).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,