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Oakland ‘Genius’ Grant Winner Hopes to Unleash the 47%

| October 2, 2012
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Awarded half a million dollars by the MacArthur Foundation on Monday, Oakland community activist Maurice Lim Miller knows exactly what to do with it: empower the 47 percent.

Yovanda Dixon washes vegetables in her San Francisco home to prepare a demonstration for her support group. (NPR)

“The future to us is about taking a whole class of people, probably that 47 percent, that people will say is unproductive, and giving them the chance to lead their own change,” he told KQED’s Christopher Johnson.

The comment was a reference to presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remark that 47% of voters are dependent on the government, pay no taxes, “believe they are victims,” and won’t vote for him.

Miller believes that this half of the population — particularly the working poor — can get themselves out of poverty if they get a little help.

But in contrast to other efforts to help the poor, Miller’s Family Independence Initiative challenges families to figure out their own path forward.

Participants get a laptop into which they have to enter data about the progress they are making. They set their own goals — a new job, a new apartment, better health , and so on– and have to enter 200 data points in all.

The FII staff audits the families to verify that the progress is real. And the more progress the families make, the more money they get, with an average family receiving $160 a month.

The families meet regularly with others in the program to exchange ideas and support. But ultimately they devise their own strategies, without caseworkers second-guessing their decisions.

Part of the program’s strength lies in the regular measuring and reporting of progress, said Miller. “People say it’s like Weight Watchers,” he said. “Every month the feedback encourages them.”

That’s how it worked for Ramona Shewl of San Francisco, according to a July 13 report on NPR.

Not all that long ago, Shewl used crack cocaine and was jailed for petty theft. Now, she’s a case manager at a nonprofit, working toward a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

She can see her progress charted in graphs on the computer. “It shows you [that] either you’re improving and you’re growing, or [you have] stagnated,” she says. “And it keeps you accountable.”

Miller started the program in Oakland 10 years ago when then Mayor Jerry Brown challenged him to find a new way of helping the poor that differed from the stalled programs dating back to the War on Poverty.

“And after two years incomes had jumped 27%, kids’ grades went up, debt went down, savings went up, businesses started, home ownership happened,” he said.

He brought the program to San Francisco, Hawaii and Boston with similar results. Though the Hawaii program has ended for now, about 500 families are enrolled in the other three cities. Miller would like to expand that to thousands with the hope of making a measurable dent in the poverty rates in those communities.

The $500,000 grant won’t do that — it’s just not enough. And Miller said the traditional sources of money for the poor — government agencies and foundations — aren’t useful either because they typically come with too many strings attached. “We really need unrestricted dollars because we don’t know what the families are going to do,” he said.

But the MacArthur grant may help publicize the success of his initiative to wealthy individuals and businesses willing to make the unconditional donations needed.

So what will he do with the $500,000? Miller said he’d like to take his initiative abroad to see how it will fly in some other countries. He doesn’t know where yet.

In the meantime, he’s just celebrating. “I celebrated with my son yesterday,” he said on Monday. “I’m celebrating with my staff tomorrow. I’m celebrating with some friends tonight. I’m going to celebrate as often and as many times as is humanly possible.”

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