Fixing Poverty Is More Complicated Than Handing Out Cash
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty so all this year we've been looking at poverty here in the U.S. We've been talking about strategies to end poverty, what's worked, what hasn't and what's on the table because according to the U.S. Census, the rate of poverty seems to be stuck at 15 percent. That's about 46 million people.
And, as we said, we've talked some already about the various ideas to end poverty. Today we want to drill down on one of them, which is this - why not just keep it simple? Why not just give people who are low income enough money so that they're not poor? Here to talk more about this is Mauricio Lim Miller. He is the founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative, that's a nonprofit that assists small groups in pulling themselves out of poverty. Also with us is Moises Velasquez-Manoff. He is a freelance science journalist who's written about the stresses of poverty for the New York Times. Welcome to you both. I'm so glad both of you could join us.
MAURICIO LIM MILLER: Thank you for having us.
MOISES VELASQUEZ-MANOFF: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, Moises, what about this idea of just giving people enough money so that they're not poor? This is actually been tried in some places and you've been reporting on that. Could you just tell us what you found out?
VELASQUEZ-MANOFF: Yes, this was an interesting series of studies that I came across. It was on the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians that in North Carolina. And they opened a casino in the mid-'90s and so this epidemiologist happened to be following them and a bunch of other people in the area. It was mostly a rural area and many people were poor. And so she had this opportunity to ask the question - what happens when a bunch people who are poor start receiving some money?
Because the tribe had decided to pay out about half of the profits to every member equally. So she had a four-year baseline before the money started, with her first study of four years after. And she was interested in mental health outcomes. She saw improvements in children's mental health outcomes for the children for whom that little bit of extra money sort of brought them above the poverty level.
MARTIN: And why do people think that is?
VELASQUEZ-MANOFF: Probably because it helps ease stresses on parents and then parents are better parents. So this is this emerging theme in the science where actually the quality of your parenting really matters to how kids grow up and whether they're - you know, whether they develop substance abuse problems or whether they develop other psychiatric problems.
MARTIN: Mauricio Lim Miller, what does your group do? It kind of operates on similar lines, but the core principle that you operate is trust families to make their own decisions. Is that right?
MILLER: Yes, it is. And that money actually is maybe one piece. I think that, you know, even the rich want more money and we also know that families in kind of poverty get money from welfare. And, you know, all of us kind of feel like that doesn't really make it. So it's not actually the transference of money, it is really the nature of how that transfer happens. So for us, our work has been to bring forth that it is this collective nature within people that actually is the driving force and money can obviously help and is needed but having choices also and then working working with your neighbors really is what brings about change.
MARTIN: Well, what do you do exactly, though? How do you do that?
MILLER: So what we do is actually we approach the families and we ask them to come in with their friends, that they will get no direction from us. So once we have a group of 6, 8, 10, 15 families that have been identified and self-identify, and we ask them, OK, so what would you do to change your own life? How would you help each other 'cause you're not going to get help from us? What we are going to do - what FII, the Family Independence Initiative does is we're going to collect the data and the stories that tell society what works and doesn't work for you - what those patterns are. So in many ways, my initiative is much more in the business of information and then sharing it both with the families and with society as a whole. So the families see their own progress. They also - through the data and stories, information, through a social media site that we have, they actually get to see what other families are doing.
The Boston families became interested what San Francisco families were doing in lending circles. So they started then communicating and start changing those behaviors. And the last piece we do is we have kind of a Yelp system so that the families now - how you and I would use Yelp to say to our friends that we like this restaurant or don't like that - they say, well, I like this head start program. I don't like that head start program. And so they actually start advising each other. And the power of peers working together is huge. That's what happened in the study that Moises actually was pointing out.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about poverty. This is part of our year-long look at poverty. We have been looking at this because this is the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. We're examining the various ideas that have come forward to address poverty.
One of the things we're drilling down on today is this whole question of, why not just give people enough money to not be poor? I'm joined by Mauricio Lim Miller from the Family Independence Initiative and science reporter Moises Velasquez-Manoff who's been reporting on this. So, Moises, you also noted in your reporting that the families who are already well-off, the supplements didn't do that much good or didn't change very much. For the families who were really on the edge, it made a huge difference. Why did it make a huge difference? Like, what did it help them to do that they couldn't do before?
VELASQUEZ-MANOFF: There's this sort of emerging idea in this science that, for example, that kids who are on welfare have this deficit that begins early on with vocabulary. And there was this observation that it was because the parents just didn't speak to them as much. And, you know, there are many reasons for that. It could be education. It could just be 'cause the parents are stressed. But now there's this also added nuance that how you communicate really matters. You know, is it - are you always yelling at them? Or are you - and why do people end up sort of snapping at their kids and not being as nurturing as they might be? One reason is outside stresses on the parent.
And of course, money helps you escape those stresses, at least at that socioeconomic level. So it could be that simple, that basically they just relaxed, and they could do what comes naturally to them anyways with a little extra money because they weren't so worried about paying the rent.
MARTIN: Mauricio Lim Miller, what kind of thinking undergirded your group's efforts in this area? I know that you, you know, had a background in kind of traditional social services as they are traditionally kind of run. So what gave you the idea to try to organize things differently?
MILLER: I think, you know, that for me, it had a lot to do with my family and the friends and the people 'cause I was - you know, we're Mexican and being raised really poor - a single mom, all the other things. So the influence was really more like common sense and what makes sense to all of us. And, you know, in terms of money, my mother needed money. I mean, we needed money just to eat and to get housing and whatever.
But my mother would not go into welfare where, you know, she would get a check. So it wasn't about the money. And what my mother made clear is that if she did that, she would start losing the respect from me, from my sister, from her friends. And I know nobody wants to go into this issue of self-respect and self-efficacy and whatever and try to find something simple like, well, let's just transfer money. Well, we've been transferring money. But, again, it's that nature that what we've seen with a lot of young people at a very early age is that if there is pride within that family or within the collective of a tribe or whatever, then the nature of that relationship really improves.
MARTIN: Moises, you've reported on this as part of the data that we're talking about here. You know, one of the things you pointed out is that the money wasn't just money. I mean, this was not - it didn't just appear. These income supplements came from a business owned by the beneficiaries. The tribe decided how to do it. The supplements were not enough for members to avoid working entirely, but they were unconditional. How did people look at this?
VELASQUEZ-MANOFF: This is such a unique situation with the Cherokee. It's more like shareholders of a business. They own the business, and they created the business to some degree. And they receive the benefits of it. And then they also took half the money and put it toward social services in a kind of - I mean, you might even call it, like, a mini social - a mini Sweden, let's call it, where they have all these social benefits like addiction counseling and various other things that are essentially free.
And they are in charge of those things. And what's interesting is that in other science, having a sense of control over your destiny actually has all these biologically measurable things that are healthy for you, that are good for your brain development, that are good, you know. And they can see them sort of when they look in your blood, so to speak, and how your genes express. And that's what's really remarkable that this thing that's sort of a soft concept is actually - you're able to measure it these days with hard science.
MARTIN: Moises, can I ask how has this reporting been received? I understand that you were - the point that you wanted to make is that a lot of this research comes from a very specific set of circumstances in a specific place with specific people, which is the Cherokee nation. But has this research penetrated the thinking about addressing poverty elsewhere?
VELASQUEZ-MANOFF: Yes. Well, there's other work being done in the developing world using what's called conditional cash transfers. They basically just give money to poor people but with certain conditions - usually that you attend nutritional classes or that sort of thing or child development classes. And they actually show beneficial outcomes with the caveat that they usually tend to show outcomes when there's also infrastructure in place like a clinic you know you can come to or a school. So there also has to be this sort of social infrastructure there. And that's an argument - 'cause those are top-down interventions. Those are not exactly the sort of bottom-up interventions we're talking about. And that's not even that - yes, money makes a big difference at certain levels of poverty.
MARTIN: And, Mauricio, final thought from you. And I'd like to ask you how would you like us to think about this question going forward? If you were in charge of our thoughts...
MILLER: I would...
MARTIN: ...How would you like us to think about it?
MILLER: I would like us to get past the issue of just discussing about poverty 'cause that discussion centers around a certain income level. And, again, this issue of if there's a base, you know, that we could provide people the safety net, etc., etc. and that what's wrong in this country is really that we kind of lost our social-economic mobility. And there are studies that show we're near the bottom in terms of mobility. So for us, I feel like what we need to do is get people conscious of the fact that there are resources of people, you know, that are resourceful in the community that we're trying to help and that what we need to do is tap that. and we need to invest in it dollar-wise, in terms of connection-wise, in terms of giving them actually the control over it. And the focus needs to be on not getting people above the poverty level, which happens all the time, you know, it really is about, is the next rung of the ladder too far away for families?
You know, is our system so fractured that a family can't actually piece their life together to really move ahead and get the kind of mobility that people used to actually exercise when - you know, whether it was African-Americans before and after slavery that built entire townships. We have a huge history before there were any programs, before there were any studies, of people working together. And actually, this country had a history of economic and social mobility. My work is really about trying to take us back to that history and back to those models which really were about people working together, helping each other and investing in that initiative.
MARTIN: Mauricio Lim Miller is the founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative. Also joining us, Moises Velasquez-Manoff. He's a freelance science reporter. They both joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
VELASQUEZ-MANOFF: Thank you.
MILLER: Thank you so much for having me.