The St. Paul-based Amherst H. Wilder Foundation began testing an innovative approach to support families living in poverty in 2016. By joining with other sites around the United States, Wilder became the second Midwest participant in the Family Independence Initiative (FII), a national project aimed at upending conventional approaches to ameliorate poverty.
FII’s program design responds to evidence that many social and human service programs fail to build sustained prosperity for low-income people and families. Instead, they result in a continuing cycle of poverty. Founder and president Mauricio Lim Miller, a first-generation immigrant, believes that radically different approaches are needed.
The program structure for FII is based on Miller’s research, in which he followed families who had overcome poverty and observed their behaviors. He learned that these families relied on support and resources from extended family and friends. Through these close connections, low-income families could learn from the ways more prosperous families accessed and developed financial resources. He also saw that these families benefitted from mutual support networks for help with transportation, chores and child care, as well as navigating systems in schools and community organizations.
Miller established FII in 2001 to apply his research. He was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2012 for the documented success of FII, mainly in Miller’s home community of Oakland, California.
FII’s premise is that when given choices, capital and connections, families know best the kinds of services and support they need to prosper. FII operates as an alternative to the top-down service delivery approach of many private and government programs. Those begin with an interview with a caseworker and referrals to specialists or enrollment in rule-bound social service programs.
In contrast, FII acts more like a creative learning exchange where families can share ideas and information. They aren’t directed by service-delivery professionals, and their actions are based on family initiatives and individual goals. FII helps establish cohorts of six to eight families who meet regularly and work together to establish relationships and provide mutual support. Cohorts recruit their own members from within existing networks and based on interest in participation.
During monthly meetings, the cohort group members convene themselves, take notes and determine their own activities. FII program staff are hands-off, acting as connectors, advocates and “story-gatherers,” and they help create the data tools that will document progress.
Wilder Foundation’s Janayah Bagurusi, director of family supportive housing, says, “All of us have a network of support we rely on for encouragement, for help when things are not going well, for celebration. The FII cohorts do this for each other, while building relationships, sharing ideas and helping each other.”
Families track their baseline indicators of prosperity on a dedicated online portal and report monthly on their progress. Data is aggregated locally and nationally as a proof point for FII’s approach and for continuous learning that informs FII’s structure and program delivery across all of its sites.
According to Wilder, different families track very different things. After documenting common baseline data on size of household, income level, number of children in school and other factors, families then establish individual goals that may be related to academic achievement, school attendance, income, savings, health indicators or other goals. Each family is paid a small monthly stipend after entering their updated data and progress reports; they also receive an initial stipend toward the expense of internet access and equipment. Families have access to a micro-grant program that can fund basics such as car repair or job training and certification.
The results thus far have been impressive. In a recent report, Wilder shows that the average monthly income for families entering FII is $2,402 a month, or $28,824 annually. (According to Wilder, the median income for St. Paul is $48,855.) The average total increase in family income after just three months of participating in FII is 43 percent, or a real dollar difference of more than $1,000 per month. After 12 months of participating in FII, the average family has a total income of $3,697 per month, an increase of 60 percent. FII families in other communities have also sustained higher levels of income over several years.
Wilder’s one-year report on its FII program also says that what families need most is “a sense of control over their daily lives, an awareness of options available to them, and a diverse and active social network that provides support and expands those options … Families have what they need to change their own lives.”
How are the implementation and successful early results of FII influencing other Wilder anti-poverty programs? Lindsay Bacher, senior program developer, says, “FII is helping open new conversations about ways we can involve clients and families in services. We haven’t made a vast sea change, but FII is shining a light on how things can be quantified differently. Often it’s funding restrictions that we have to jump through and our participants have to jump through that keep us from being as client-directed and trusting as FII with the families we work with.”
Looking ahead, Wilder staff say that nationally FII is working to expand its UpTogether Fund that participating families can use to access resources such as no-interest loans and funds for “family time” activities that many low-income families cannot afford. Wilder’s local version is called the Resource Hub and the aim is to grow it over time. With a goal of 100 participating families by the end of 2018, Wilder sees this new programming as promising, based on its early results.
Policy advocates take note: FII offers an evidence-based approach that is reducing reliance on government subsidies while increasing civic engagement among participants. That’s innovation.
Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.