In the year 2000, Mauricio Lim Miller – now a leading social entrepreneur, public speaker and author focusing on peer-driven social change and economic empowerment – received a phone call from Jerry Brown, the then-mayor of Oakland, California. Miller had spent decades in community development and was heading Asian Neighborhood Design, a local organization that had grown into a nationally recognized model. The previous year, Miller was one of the honorees, along with Rosa Parks, invited by President Bill Clinton to attend the State of the Union address.
And yet then-Mayor Brown was apoplectic. He was incredulous that a youth program in which Miller was involved was requesting over $10 million in funding to ensure the employment of 120 caseworkers, while guaranteeing no jobs for client-participants. Brown accused Miller of being "a poverty pimp." Miller didn’t exactly disagree. He had long harbored doubts about existing programmatic approaches to addressing poverty. Year after year he saw the same people walk through his doors; a generation later, he saw their children. And so with Brown’s urging, Miller began thinking about how social service policies and programs could be re-designed to help break the cycle of economic dependency.
Miller realized he didn’t know the answers. But he sensed that the families did, and that they could lift themselves and one another up if entrusted and supported to make their own decisions – rather than being “saved” from themselves or directed what to do with the financial assistance they received. The son of a single mother who immigrated from Mexico, Miller realized that though she struggled constantly, she had figured out how to enable her children to escape poverty. He sensed that designing programs powered from the bottom up, rather than from the top down – focusing on the wisdom, talents and resilience of people in low-income communities, rather than on their perceived failings or weakness, and connecting them with one another – could yield new insights and promise. Miller viewed this as a huge opportunity to recognize the ability of low-income families to contribute to society, becoming “makers,” not “takers.” Their strengths, initiative, resourcefulness, talents, and determination – qualities shown by countless waves of US immigrants – were all hiding in plain sight.
So four weeks after the phone call, Miller resigned from Asian Neighborhood Design and, with start-up money from Brown, started the Family Independence Initiative (FII) as a research project. Now called UpTogether, FII gave low-income families laptops with data-tracking software and a platform that enabled them to record each action they took to improve their situations – whether related to savings, debt reduction, skills training or their children's grades. Quarterly, they received cash payments for tracking their behavior and documenting those actions. Instead of relying on professional caseworkers, FII encouraged families to set their own goals, provided cash incentives if they achieved them, and fostered relationships among families so they could turn to one another for support.
Crucially, Miller and FII staff members did not provide advice or direction; they simply created peer support among the families and audited the data. Miller wanted a window into how low-income families functioned if they were nudged and trusted to set and pursue their own goals – and with the mutual support of one another within a peer network, the kind his mother lost when she immigrated to the United States. As The New York Times reported in 2017:
The initiative is grounded in the premise that a paternalistic conceit has hindered the development of poor families …. Lim Miller’s organization provides no services or advice directly. What it offers are a structure and a platform within which families can strengthen their social networks, along with small payments for tracking their own behaviors and reporting them on a monthly basis. With these assets, they can discover what works for themselves and their peers, share or emulate their successes and assist one another.
Ringing in Miller’s ears were shrewd observations made by his late mother, who had lamented that charitable programs took away their intended beneficiaries’ pride and overlooked their hard work and talents (she herself had been an accomplished dress designer and seamstress). “They never ask me about what I’m good at doing. We would be so much better off if they just gave us a fraction of what they spend trying to help us,” she had said.
Miller sees a bigger picture, too – an opportunity for a fundamental shift toward social justice. Government and philanthropic services for low-income communities often inadvertently punish progress, because as people earn more, they quickly lose benefits. So, to help the working poor, FII rolled out low-interest loans for families that pay their rent and utilities on time. It now connects families in different parts of the country to share resources and guide one another and offers no-strings fellowships and scholarships. It has reached more than 100,000 households across the US, and their income on average rises by nearly 25 percent after two years with a corresponding decline in public subsidies. Many FII families have launched businesses, amassed more savings, and lowered their debt, and their homeownership has increased. These are all undeniable, measurable results.
Miller says it’s a good start, but not nearly enough to truly break the cycle of poverty. UpTogether is now committed to sharing its data with any policymakers open to peer-driven change, leveraging the recognition of its bottom-up approach and fostering organic expansion via what Miller calls “ripple” growth. He also envisions setting up an association to catalyze cross-class mutual support and community building; a leadership academy for organizations and communities that want to implement FII’s philosophies; and is intent on pushing a policy agenda that incentivizes progress and supports economic mobility for low-income people.
Miller could have looked the other way and lived a comfortable life, thanks to degrees in engineering and product design from Berkeley and all that came with them through his mother’s struggles and resourcefulness. Yet his mother’s words rang in his ears: “You can’t let what our family is going through happen to others.” Soon after his mother’s death in 1973, he abandoned his early engineering career and dedicated his career to the fight against poverty.
Miller has been an Ashoka Fellow and received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, a Harmony with Hope Award, a Prime Mover Fellowship, and a Purpose Prize for Financial Inclusion. In 2017 he published The Alternative: Most of what You Believe about Poverty is Wrong, and in 2019-2020 he was a James Wei Visiting Professor in Entrepreneurship at Princeton. He also sits on various boards, including the Board of Directors of the National Cooperative Bank, Development Corporation; the board of the Corporation for Enterprise Development; the Board of Public/Private Ventures; California Endowment and The Hitachi Foundation, and has launched several small businesses. He lives in Oakland and has two children.
Join David Bonbright in conversation with this remarkable and innovative changemaker!
I feel that this chaotic moment in history is also a moment of opportunity where there is the potential to bring about more of a fundamental shift for social justice. After over 50 years of top-down solutions as part of the war on poverty, those seeking change may be ready to give up power to the people so they can lead their own change.
1. The realization when I was the director of social service programs that I would not bring members of my family who were struggling through my own services and so why would I then bring others through my programs? 2. When Jerry Brown, then Mayor of Oakland called me and my colleagues poverty pimps, but then gave me the opportunity to think and do anything I wanted to bring about fundamental change
I don't like the word 'kindness' because when applied to low-income communities is smacks of charity and paternalism
Begin to change the stereotype of the people I grew up with that they are takers rather than makers in our society.
"We don't avail ourselves of the incredible, omni-present, self-renewing power of social change that exists in everyday people, in every neighborhood, & has existed throughout history we need to work with what people are already doing" -- Rohit Menezes, Partner at the Bridgespan Group