Genius: MacArthur Foundation Welcomes Anti-Poverty Ashoka Fellow Maurice Miller to the Class of 2012

Maurice Lim Miller, the 66-year-old founder of Family Independence Initiative (FII) and an Ashoka Fellow, has a passive (and indubitably effective) way of fighting poverty. Miller believes that low-income families have the capacity to help themselves and each other, and his social enterprise lets them do just that.

“The only people who really know solutions are the people themselves,” Miller told Ashoka staff earlier this year. “In our situation, it is that we want to learn from them.”

“We can convey that they're really the experts of their own lives and we are there to learn from them,” Miller continued. “It is this power shift that most of these families have never experienced before from our sector—normally they're told what to do. That shift, when families realize that they really are the experts, brings about a lot of the change that we see.”

FII staff is forbidden from recommending solutions, setting goals or suggesting aspirations for low-income families—in fact, if ever FII staff attempts to dictate aspirations to a family, the staffer is fired.

You can call it crazy, but the MacArthur Foundation calls it “genius.” Miller is one of the 23 new MacArthur Fellows for 2012. Each of the 23 learned of their victory through a “phone call out of the blue from the Foundation,” where they were told they would each receive $500,000 in unrestricted funds over the next half decade.

“These extraordinary individuals demonstrate the power of creativity,” said MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. “The MacArthur Fellowship is not only a recognition of their impressive past accomplishments but also, more importantly, an investment in their potential for the future. We believe in their creative instincts and hope the freedom the Fellowship provides will enable them to pursue unfettered their insights and ideas for the benefit of the world.”

While FII doesn't subscribe to a top-down prescription to poverty, it does offer low-income families small cash stipends for achieving and documenting their self-initiated objectives, which can range from finding a job to paying off debts. FII disburses $30 per activity up to a total of $160 extra per month. That's not a lot of additional income, and it doesn't change their lives, but it's enough to get them on the right track. For cash-strapped families, it takes the issue of money off the table, says Miller.

“When we tried it in Oakland, Hawaii, San Francisco, and now Boston, on average, household income goes up within two years over 20 percent,” Miller told the MacArthur Foundation. “Debt goes down, savings go up, kids' grades go up.

“The families, in general, start taking control of their lives. They help each other and everyone starts doing much better—just because they're doing it their own way.”

Watch Maurice Miller chat with the MacArthur Foundation about the innovation (and the recognition)