Friday, April 22, 2016

Fighting Poverty Takes Creativity

For nearly 50 years, the United States has, in some form of rhetoric or another, claimed to be fighting a "war on poverty." Despite the buzz, the most recent census data has confirmed that more than 45 million people, or 14.5% of all Americans, are living below the poverty line in the U.S. Less conservative estimates assert that there could be anywhere from 40 to 70 million U.S. households currently living in poverty. Furthermore, the rate of national spending on welfare programs is steadily increasing, and yet the "war on poverty" still rages on. Is it time to enact a new battle plan? Maurice Lim Miller thinks so.

                   Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative

Miller is the founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative (FFI), and a 2012 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship for his work in economic development through FII. So what exactly is FFI? The Family Independence Initiative is an anti-poverty nonprofit organization that is taking an innovative approach to raising the poor out of poverty and into the middle class - by creating the opportunity for these families to communicate with one another, share resources and strategies, and build their own creative solutions to getting out of poverty.

In an interview for NPR, Miller describes the process as going something like this: "A family walks in and we tell them, look, you're never going to be able to get out just by yourself. We have no staff that is really going to be able to help you. Go find six or eight other families that are friends of yours and, if you organize those families and come in, we'll talk to you as a group and if we think that we can learn from you, we want to learn from you. And if you are going to try to change your life in the next two years, then we'll pay you for the time you spend showing us what the progress is that you're making."

                           Families gathered to share their resources and progress

Miller compares this to the motivational and behavioral studies that companies like Google use to justify decisions like giving employees 20% of work time to do anything they want using the resources that Google has. He notes that "they [Google] have gotten some of their best products by giving people the freedom to really experiment when they have resources available. That's all we do. We set up a platform for people to say, look, getting out of poverty and becoming independent is a creative process. You guys have the challenge to do that.

Miller himself used his creativity to rise out of poverty. Born in Mexico and raised by a single parent, it was the resourcefulness of his mother that inspired and motivated him to begin this movement. In the same NPR interview, he comments on realizing that there was something missing from the national conversation on poverty. A lot of this had to do with the emphasis on charity and the deficits of poor people. Miller realized that there needed (and still needs) to be a paradigm shift to focus on their strengths and their infinite potential for positive contributions. For his mother, the American dream was about becoming truly independent, and knowing that the social safety net alone would not be able to do that for them. He remarks that his mother "was really hurt by the message both from the right and the left. She didn't like being called Mexican and dirty and lazy and then she didn't like the social worker that was trying to say, oh, well, you know, you're a poor mom and we're going to help you and basically saying the same thing, that she wasn't capable. My mother had only a third grade education, but she was smart and she was rough and she really was resourceful and that's how these families are."


Miller's initiative truly puts into practice some of the psychological principles that we discussed in class. The decision to only fund families if they can work in groups of 6 to 8 is rooted in the concept of creative collaboration, and the idea of a creative cohort functioning best when there is an ideal Q - in practice, each family would know some of the other families really well, and a few others would be more distant or newer contacts, but they generate ideas and formulate plans best working within their collaborative cohorts. Furthermore, the principle of intrinsic motivation is seen in both the participants and Miller himself. In our reading entitled "Motivation and Creativity," the authors make the points that "there is considerable anecdotal and empirical evidence that creative production does require a high level of intrinsic motivation" (Collins & Amabile 297). The participants need to challenge themselves to find creative solutions for themselves and their families, while Miller works because of a deep level of understanding stemming from his own background.

FII spotlighted on the blog of a mother whose family it helped

Miller's initiative is truly paying off for the families involved. Within the first two years of his first project in Oakland, the average household income for FII families jumped by 27%. On FII's website, a Stories of Impact page highlights the achievements of participating families, anything from buying houses, to starting businesses, and paying for college tuition for their children. Miller notes that sharing this type of success both within their cohorts and to the general public validates that these families are the solvers of the problem, that they are both capable, intelligent, and resourceful, and that, working together, they are able to rise up and overcome poverty.



  1. Wow! What an interesting article. I would love to learn more about this and more on how the families collaborate to bring themselves out of poverty. I think it is really cool how Miller is using his creative abilities to foster creativity in others. The fact that he challenges families, instead of simply giving them an easy way out really ensures that they are able to be independent and can continue building better lives for themselves.

  2. I love posts that talk about people who have found creative solutions to pressing social/economic issues. I wonder how exactly these families collaborate and share their progress, and if Miller has come up with any kind of formula or model to maximize their creative capacities. I also wonder how families hear of this organization and how external motivation (being paid) comes in to play in comparison to internal motivation to stay committed to the program. Love this post!

  3. I think this is a great idea and love that Miller's creative idea stemmed from personal experience. Miller's experiences growing up seem to have greatly impacted his views on how to help families below the poverty line. It is so interesting that Miller took the issue of poverty, saw what did not work, and used creativity to come up with an idea that seems to really be working. It also seems that taking a new spin on an old problem has been very beneficial. This goes to show that creativity can be helpful in social issues, and I hope to see more creative ideas in altering social problems. So often I think of creativity as the creation of new items, technology, etc. I love seeing creativity applied in this way. I am reminded of Watson and Crick and their creative rush to reveal the model of DNA. In a way, fighting poverty does not seem like a creative process, yet Miller shows us how fruitful applying a creative spin to a societal issue can be.

  4. As a social work major, I am a bit critical of the FII program. Many individuals living in poverty struggle with addiction and mental health issues. The FII program seems to only benefit families who have the cognitive skills and stability in their life to work with other families in groups to come up with creative solutions. And while many people in living in poverty do not suffer from addiction or mental health issues and remain poor because of systematic injustices, it seems to me like this program rewards those who are creative. Shouldn't all be able to live free from poverty regardless of their creativity? Regardless of my critique, I find the concept of this program to be very creative. Once families have discovered a creative solution, will they share this idea with other families so as to lift them up out of poverty as well?

  5. I find Miller's story inspiring. He is strictly intrinsically motivated, using his past as the fuel to fire this beautiful initiative. The FII might not be suitable to everyone living in poverty as Jacqueline mentioned; however, that doesn't mean anything should be taken from the amount of people it does help. An issue as multifaceted as poverty doesn't have a singular answer, rather it will take many initiatives such as this one along with legislation to bring down the poverty rate in this country. What makes FII especially impressive is that it teaches these people to survive independent of government aid making them much less likely to ever fall back into poverty. Hopefully the FII will lead to many more programs that take a more holistic approach in ending poverty.

  6. I definitely think this is a unique idea and an interesting solution. I've learned a lot about the "war on poverty" recently in my history class. I think you did an excellent job talking about a well-rounded review of the creative--both as a person and his product. Also an excellent example of Q! I agree with Jax though. I'm also a Social Work major, and I think this a bit of a rose-colored look at poverty solutions. However, at this point, the issue is so immense, I'm willing to try anything!

  7. I really like how you incorporated the social justice issue of poverty into your blog post! This is a very well-written and interesting post. Nice job, Anna!

  8. This is one of the most amazing, innovative political/social ideas I've ever seen! What a fascinating man and a fascinating cause. If more people got behind the accurate view of the poor as just as savvy and smart as the middle-class and above, then we'd be able to start to solve the "War on Poverty". Really nice job tying in social justice issues (thanks, Jesuit Loyola!) into the blog post too. Thanks so much for this amazing article!


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