October 1st, 2012
Maurice Lim Miller, innovator of a promising approach to economic mobility, was named today as a winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, known informally as the Genius Award, granted by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Miller is founder and CEO of the national Family Independence Initiative (FII). Miller, in partnership with low-income families across the country, has shown that when families have strong social networks and access to resources based on their initiative, they can and do create their own paths of economic mobility. His work offers vital insight into rebuilding the middle class.
“I’m deeply honored to receive this award,” said Miller from his home in Oakland. “It’s a testament to the families FII has worked with over the last decade. I hope this attention spurs our country to rethink how we approach economic hardship and mobility. My work shows that poor people are broke, not broken. When we create environments for people to work together and solve their own problems and provide resources based on their initiative, families have a deep capacity to transform their lives.”
Miller launched FII in 2001 after receiving a call from then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, challenging him to address the cycle of poverty. From his 22 years of experience as the executive director of a large community development agency in the Bay Area, Miller knew that while the safety net is needed for people in crisis, our needs-based social welfare system penalizes people once they show initiative and begin to progress.
Miller developed FII as a way to partner with and learn from low-income families, developing and testing tools to support—rather than impede—initiative and self-direction. The impressive results of stronger community ties, improvements in income, savings, and education, among other quality-of-life outcomes, in all four cities of FII’s work garnered national attention.
The strong results led him to develop an approach that builds upon social capital and expands the incentive-based system that exists for the middle and upper classes. “We have a system of incentives that benefit the well-off,” said Miller, “such as home mortgage tax deductions, retirement plans, and education savings accounts. We can expand that system and create similarly structured practices and policies that make sense for low-income people, so they too can access resources to build their futures.”
Miller’s experience of growing up poor deeply informs his approach. He emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. as a child with his mother and sister. Like so many other low-income parents, Maurice’s mother worked long hours at two jobs to feed and support her children. It took all of her resources to ensure that her son could escape poverty and enter UC Berkeley. The effort took its toll, and Miller lost his mother when he was in his twenties.
Miller was appointed by President Obama to serve on the White House Council for Community Solutions, is a Board Member of the California Endowment, and is an Ashoka Fellow. Miller is currently at work on a book that traces the roots of FII’s approach and its lessons. He also continues to develop new tools and initiative-based resources to test in low-income communities through FII.
Please see these recent PBS Need to Know and NPR All Things Considered segments on the work of the Family Independence Initiative. To read more about Maurice’s approach, please visit his Huffington Post blog.