Do you know why most people are poor, and what would make them better off? Mauricio Miller is pretty sure you do not. In The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong, he argues that people involved in anti-poverty work today regularly do more harm than good. In fact, he fires staffers within his organization who simply “help” poor families.
Low-income families, Miller says, need to be aided to solve their own problems, not temporarily rescued with outside resources. “Helping” people may sound charitable, but it keeps the helper in control, makes the beneficiary dependent, and only offers short-term boosts. In Miller’s view, it doesn’t matter if someone is dependent on government aid or dependent on private charity. Either way the result is bad.
Founder of the Family Independence Initiative, Miller has devoted his life to serving low-income families and children. His book offers a refreshing account of an accomplished poverty warrior who realized one day he had been fighting the war in the wrong way. It was only after he received national attention as a guest of President Bill Clinton during the 1999 State of the Union address that he changed the trajectory of his career.
Miller finally recognized that poor people’s lives usually improve for reasons other than the assistance they receive from the social-services sector. This conclusion brought him back to his own experience as the son of a hardworking, immigrant, single mother. By working multiple jobs, his mother gave her children a shot at the American Dream. She never asked for anything, and implored her son to make good choices, work hard at school, and get a good job. Making good choices, Miller writes, is the key to overcoming poverty.
Of course, in order to make good choices, one needs to have options. Miller got a chance to attend college at UC Berkeley. He grabbed it, majoring in engineering. Like J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Miller’s experience is a story of cultural displacement. He noticed that everyone else in his dorm expected to have jobs in the future, yet he fretted about whether he would get hired after graduating. He realized that family and friends provide a base for future opportunity that poor individuals often can’t grasp.
The best way to improve the lives of the poor, Miller believes, is to support their own efforts to expand their options and choices. Anyone who wants to be useful “must first recognize the thousands of right things that people are doing for themselves.” Those are the elements most likely to grow into something more valuable. The best way to be of assistance might be matching the savings a person is already putting aside to buy a house. Or helping someone transform her second job into a main line of work. Or getting a child who is attentive to his studies into a better school.
Miller developed an alternative view of overcoming poverty that emphasizes increasing the opportunities available to poor people, avoiding “expert” guidance or control of the poor, and building up the community networks that surround and support low-income people. He founded the Family Independence Initiative to promote this approach.
FII has made great strides in gathering information on productive things poor families are already doing to improve their lives. For instance, FII found that many low-income people work side jobs for cash. Rather than turning this into a demand for higher minimum wages, as poverty activists often do, Miller believes side work should be encouraged and nurtured.
Miller’s book is refreshingly devoid of the usual jargon about inequality and poverty. He does not spare policymakers on the left or the right. Both have oversimplified ideas about overcoming poverty, and both often fail to see how the activities of poor people themselves are the key to success. The main target of his criticism is public and private transfers to the poor. Most of these “programs waste time and resources, providing assistance that doesn’t meet the real priorities of the families.”
Miller’s insights can help philanthropists and civic leaders looking for a new template for addressing poverty in their communities and cities. One lesson is that it’s important to create environments where low-income people can solve problems together. Identifying leaders in the community, finding family members who are toiling hard to improve their situation, then creating tools for these individuals to help them succeed at what they are already doing is the right approach.
The school-reform movement is a useful example. By creating vouchers and charter schools, reformers established an environment in which parents could exercise productive options. Proof that there are lots of poor people who will do their part can be seen in the flood of applications for these new education tools.
Philanthropists and community leaders can apply that same approach to other choices parents can make to improve their station. What kind of job training would poor people take up if they had time and money? What would they like to see done in their neighborhoods? There are many low-income households capable of achieving good things when they have options and problem-solving tools, instead of just impersonal transfers and mass entitlements.
Contributing editor Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy at the American Enterprise Institute.