D.J. Powers

Ashoka Fellow
Austin, Texas, United States
Fellow Since 2001

Citation

This profile was prepared when D.J. Powers was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
The New Idea
D.J. Powers is fighting poverty. But you won't find him at a food shelter, or a job training center–or even in the communities for which he is working.

Instead, you will find him at home poring over thick reports of insurance coverage data. Or in a courtroom, well into the third day of a rate-setting case that traditionally lasts less than two hours. But his work impacts thousands and has the potential to impact millions more.

D.J. is attacking, in a highly leveraged way, the sad reality that prevents millions of impoverished and minority individuals from pulling themselves out of poverty–their inability to obtain affordable insurance, utilities, and credit. He is doing this by focusing exclusively on the institutions that have the ability to make these tools affordable and accessible–state administrative agencies. D.J. analyzes their decisions, regulations, and choices with an eye to demonstrating their impact on the poor. He then intervenes, by issuing reports, proposing rules, and using the courts and press as necessary. He picks his cases strategically, focusing on what he terms "low hanging fruit"–where the impact per effort is high, and where the results set a precedent for similar changes in other states.

Although a handful of other organizations around the country advocate for consumers of similar services, they focus on all consumers, rather than specifically representing the poor. Yet industry spokespersons are masters at demonstrating benefits for all without revealing the costs for a few. Moreover, other groups tend to focus on individual lawsuits or at the legislative level. This limits their impact, as legislatures tend to gloss over the needs of a populace that lacks political influence. In contrast, D.J. is focused exclusively on low-income and minority individuals as a class and bringing sophisticated economic and legal expertise to bear on the actions of administrative agencies. D.J. is also open to working with regulators and industries in ways that traditional activists are not.

Success also distinguishes D.J. In the four years since he launched his project in Austin, Texas, he has secured a $240 million savings in the cost of credit for poor Texans, repeal of a rule that denied basic telephone services to 600,000 Texas homes, and a 27% rate decrease for mandatory auto insurance for victims of redlining.

D.J. wants to spread his model to every state in the union and has a plan to do so. He sees, very clearly, a time when low-income residents around the country have individuals representing and advocating for their interests in these matters and when administrative agencies and industries–knowing they are being watched or simply that the tools to watch them exist–respond.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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