It was President Lyndon Johnson who declared “War On Poverty.” Almost fifty years later, you could make a case that America has lost that war. The poverty rate has continued to rise, and today, 46 million people in the U.S. live in poverty — the highest number ever recorded.
The long recession is partly to blame. But some argue that the way we’ve been trying to help people get out of poverty is a big part of the problem. Among them is Maurice Lim Miller. Miller ran social service programs in the San Francisco Bay area for twenty years before he realized that the traditional approach of hand-outs and public assistance wasn’t working.
He thought of the way his own mother, a poor Mexican immigrant, helped get him out of poverty. And from that, came a radical idea: stop thinking of the poor as “needy.” Stop defining them exclusively by their deficits. Instead, empower them to define what they need, and give them a way to go after it themselves.
From that fundamental idea came the Family Independence Initiative — a non-profit now run by Miller. It involves about 300 low-income families in Oakland, San Francisco and here in Boston. And the results have been impressive: participants have seen their incomes rise by 20-percent; childrens’ school grades have gone up, along with rates of home-ownership and savings.