The New, Improved Way to Fight Poverty


Multiple anti-poverty programs are currently in existence, many of them serving a core part of government (things like Medicaid, SNAP, EBT, etc). But are they fostering a culture of dependence that ends up harming those they try to help?

Public policy researcher Ryan Streeter says the goal of these programs is to empower families to make good choices. But it rarely works out that way.

Streeter references Mauricio Miller's book The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong, in which he argues that most anti-poverty work is counterproductive, and that new strategies are needed.

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. ...

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 is the Founder of the Family Independence Initiative, and has devoted his life to serving low-income families and children. In his book, he offers criticisms of both traditional approaches to poverty from the political left and right, stating that both have oversimplified the problem, and neglect to emphasize the fact that the poor themselves are they key to escaping poverty.

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.

One example is school choice, which has empowered families to find the best places to send their kids. This puts them in the driver's seat, and enables them to make choices that better their own lives. Streeter suggests applying this approach in other areas, like job training. When given problem-solving tools, people can solve their own problems. Sometimes it just takes a completely different outlook to see the path of least resistance.

Would a radically different approach to poverty bring about change?