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Questioning the assumptions we make about poor people with Maurice Lim Miller

Image courtesy of www.fiinet.org/

In 1999, Jerry Brown called Maurice Lim Miller at home. Brown was mayor of Oakland at the time, and Miller was on the board of an organization applying for more than $10 million dollars for youth programs. 

“And most mayors you’d think would be really happy that we’re bringing that kind of money into the city,” says Miller.

But Brown wasn’t happy – he was upset. And after looking more closely at the proposal, Miller understood why.

“We were going to create about 120 professional positions of social workers, administrators, etc,” Miller explains. “And then you go to the results, and we were going to enroll 80 percent of the toughest kids in Oakland, and hope that they get jobs.”

Hope the young people get jobs, but guarantee employment for middle-class professionals. That was why Brown didn’t like the plan – and Miller didn’t like it either –but this was how things were done. He wasn’t sure how to do them differently. 

“So then [Brown] stopped the conversation and he said, really what changed my life: ‘If you could do anything you wanted to do, money and regulations were not a problem, and you really wanted to impact poverty’ – because at that point there’d been a 30-something-year war on poverty with very little impact on poverty itself – then he said, ‘what would you do, and you show up at my office and show me?’”

Miller took Jerry Brown’s challenge seriously. He’d grown up in poverty, and understood what life was like for poor families. He’d also spent more than two decades working in social services. But the problem was immense, and it didn’t seem to be getting better.

“And after two weeks I came to the conclusion that I didn’t know how to impact poverty,” Miller says. “But I had to show up at his office. So I’m in his office, and he asks, ‘What would you do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what I would do. But my mother figured out how to get me out – and for that fact, I think most mothers and fathers would have a better idea how to help their own families. So I would take some of this money you complain we’re spending on ourselves as professionals, I’d make it available to the families and pay them if they would show us how they’d get their own families out.’”

This was the beginning of the Family Independence Initiative, an antipoverty program that defies almost all the conventional wisdom about how to help poor people move up the economic ladder. Miller recently won a MacArthur Genius Award for his work.

Miller joined KALW’s Holly Kernan to talk about the basics – starting with what’s wrong with the way we look at poor people.

Click the audio player above to listen to the interview. 

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Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.