MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. It's been almost 50 years since President Johnson declared the war on poverty. Today, the U.S. poverty rate is higher than it's been in 17 years, affecting some 46 million people.
The economy is partly to blame, but even in good times, millions of Americans are poor. This week we've been reporting on efforts to help low-income families in Reading, Pennsylvania. Now we go across the country to Oakland, California, to look at a new approach, letting poor families decide for themselves what they need to get ahead. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Let's face it, a lot of anti-poverty programs don't work that well, and you don't need to tell that to Maurice Lim Miller. He ran social services in the Bay Area for 20 years: job training, housing, the usual. One day, the painful truth hit.
MAURICE LIM MILLER: The very first kids I had trained back in the early '80s, I saw their kids now showing up at my programs.
FESSLER: What, he though, have I actually accomplished? He knew he had helped people...
MILLER: But I had wanted to see people get permanently out of poverty.
FESSLER: Then he got the kind of opportunity someone like him only dreams of. It came from then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who was also frustrated. He called Miller at home one night to complain.
MILLER: And then he said, look at, if you could do anything you wanted to do, and you really wanted to impact poverty, what would you do? And you come into my office next month and show me.
FESSLER: Miller says for two weeks, he wracked his brain.
MILLER: And I knew I had to go talk to the mayor and came to the conclusion I didn't know.
FESSLER: But then it dawned on him. His mother was a poor Mexican immigrant, and she had somehow figured out on her own how to get him out of poverty. So he told Brown: Why don't we take the money and pay poor families to show us what they would do?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning.
FESSLER: Ten years later, here's the result: five lively, sometimes boisterous women meeting on a Saturday morning in a quiet neighborhood in South San Francisco.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, you've got a nice house, Yovanda.
FESSLER: They are part of something called the Family Independence Initiative, a nonprofit run by Miller. It encourages low-income families to get together in small groups to help each other get ahead. The key is that they set their own goals. This group calls itself the Fitness Five.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, we're going to definitely weigh ourselves now. We need to weigh ourselves.
FESSLER: What, you might ask, does weighing yourself have to do with fighting poverty? We'll get to that. But first, the rules. These women meet monthly and keep journals, charting their progress on income, savings, education, all the signposts of a successful life. For this, they each get a laptop computer and an average monthly stipend of $160.
As for the agenda, hospital worker Shanna Chaney says for now, the Fitness Five is focused on getting healthy. It's hard to get ahead if you're ill.
SHANNA CHANEY: We all care about health, spiritual heath, everything.
YOVANDA DIXON: Especially me because I'm a diabetic.
FESSLER: Yovanda Dixon knows at 263 pounds, she has a few to lose. She's hosting today's meeting.
DIXON: OK, here we go. We have collard greens, we have golden apples, we have kiwi fruit, celery, beets.
FESSLER: She's decided to show the others how to make a healthy drink in the food processor.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PROCESSOR)
DIXON: The machine is like 150 bucks, and it's well worth it.
FESSLER: But don't be fooled. This is about much more than health. These women have seen a lot in their lives: cancer, depression, spousal abuse, drugs. Now, together, they're trying to turn things around. Two have started small businesses, another is in grad school. The others are raising young children. They all worry about finances.
CHANEY: In my office, if you're interested in being a part of the lending circle, the orientation will be there Monday at 6 p.m. So...
FESSLER: At today's meeting, Shanna encourages the others to join a lending circle. That's where everyone pools their money, putting a little aside each month. Then they take turns borrowing it. The women also keep each other abreast of what's new in their lives. Yovanda shares the latest with her business, which is selling scented oils and gifts.
DIXON: I'm going to the Internet, Scentuality Oils dot com.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Congratulations.
FESSLER: The meetings are very unstructured. But Maurice Lim Miller says that's the point.
MILLER: Our families have done well, and the families have done well because we give them room to do whatever they feel they need to do to get ahead.
FESSLER: And the initial results have been impressive. The first 86 families saw their incomes shoot up an average 20 percent in two years. Children's school grades have also gone up. So, too, have homeownership and savings.
Miller says the key is that people feel in control, and they're encouraged to show initiative, unlike in more traditional safety net programs.
MILLER: The problem with our system right now, it's all based on need. It's based on charity. And if you have a need, then it tries to fill it. If you have more need, then you have more resources.
FESSLER: So when people start doing better, benefits are cut, not much of an incentive. The Family Independence Initiative also costs a lot less, one reason it's getting attention from both the left and the right, from the Obama White House to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But it's still largely a pilot program. About 300 families are involved, and the big question is, can it work for everyone?
ROMANA SHEWL: Let me see, let's go to our reports and then monthly journal, and then you click here.
FESSLER: In her small San Francisco apartment, one of the Fitness Five, Ramona Shewl, has her laptop open on the living room table. Pictures of her two sons are on a nearby bookshelf.
She shows me the kinds of things she updates in her monthly reports.
SHEWL: So how much you have in your savings account, how much you have in your checking, what your credit score is.
FESSLER: She says the Family Independence Initiative has given her discipline in a life that was often chaotic. Not all that long ago, Ramona used crack cocaine and was jailed for petty theft. Now, she's a case manager at a nonprofit, working towards a master's degree.
She can see her progress charted in graphs on the computer.
SHEWL: It shows you either you're improving and you're growing, or you're stagnated. And it keeps you accountable.
FESSLER: But like many people, Ramona didn't get where she is without a lot of help. Besides the Family Independence Initiative, there were counselors, substance abuse programs, church, friends. She also has a lot of personal drive. The program clearly works best for those already motivated to do well.
Maurice Lim Miller admits it's no panacea but rather a promising new approach to an old problem. Pam Fessler, NPR News.