Can the Poor Help Themselves? Social Innovation in Boston

A program in Boston is encouraging the poor with incentives to record positive behaviors.
by | September 3, 2010 AT 9:00 AM

Boston prides itself on having services for every identified economic or social problem, and in having neighborhood-based institutions to provide them. Our city's safety net is as sturdy as they come, but it does have two major flaws.

Boston is a city made up of a lot of new people who often don't have connections, knowledge of or access to service offerings. It is also made up of too many isolated people who sometimes don't have the means or the confidence to gain access to those services. That flaw is constantly being addressed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's outreach efforts to isolated communities, from door-knocking at public housing sites to citywide calls on the elderly to the work of the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians, whose mission is to integrate immigrants into the life of the city.

But the second flaw is that many of these services neither recognize the strengths of families and communities nor build on them, thereby doing little to help grow family and friend networks that are often the first line of defense against the pain of tough times. It was for this very reason that we recruited Maurice Miller and his Family Independence Initiative (FII) to Boston.

After twenty years in human services, Miller grew disillusioned with the common social service model that deals with people in isolation. The FII instead relies on family and friend networks to fight poverty. By convening a small cohort of families and providing them with incentives to record positive behaviors, the FII helps families help themselves. In their San Francisco pilot, participating households increased their income by 20 percent while 70 percent of children improved their grades.

FII relies on small financial rewards and social reinforcement to provide incentives for families to report on the positive things they do or sign up for. But FII is not just about connecting a family to locally available services. It helps a family to understand its ability to take advantage of what the city offers, and ultimately to build networks of families to identify their own problems and their own solutions.

Boston is known for innovative thinking and entrepreneurship as well as for its commitment to the poor, but that hasn't prevented skepticism about this innovation. In other cities where FII operates, resistance has come from well-intentioned professionals, volunteers and donors who comprise a city's existing safety net. They see FII as an untraditional and potentially disruptive model.

In truth, the disruptive potential of FII is what makes it so important. FII seeks to shake up the policy and institutional regime built up over the last six decades around fighting poverty, and questions some underlying theories about the poor.

Most providers are passionate about helping the poor but many don't actually believe that the poor can help themselves, either individually or collectively. This has created a service mentality that creates dependency and the notion among recipients that they can't be held responsible for their own behavior. FII moves the focus from service and decision-making by others to self-help and awareness.

Further, FII's work highlights the extraordinary disparities that exist between the financial incentives available to middle and upper class people and those available to the poor. When they make progress and their incomes rise above a certain threshold level, low-income recipients become ineligible for safety net programs -- child care vouchers, food stamps and Medicaid -- which pushes them back into poverty. In effect, we are punishing the poor for taking positive steps like building their savings or getting an education that leads to a better job.

The FII model turns this approach on its head by encouraging positive behaviors -- and it shows great results.

FII provides a useful demonstration of low-income families' ability to break the cycle of poverty. Because policy and funding decisions in Boston are increasingly data driven, working with FII and following their local cohort of participating families will give us more evidence to push for changes in state and federal policies that undermine peoples' ability to escape from poverty. The key lesson is to give the poor the same positive reinforcements that we give the middle class now.

Further, changing the culture of anti-poverty work will require influencing those incumbent nonprofit and charitable organizations that tend to underestimate or dismiss the ability of people to help themselves. FII data and policy innovations will be useful tools as we look to effect change across the whole system of funders and providers.

So how can other cities grow an idea with as much potential as FII in the face of strong opposition from some established social service professionals?

Be driven by the data. A willingness to try new models, to be innovative and responsive are worthy attributes, but it is important if we hope to change existing policies that we are equally willing to measure and be evaluated by the results. We must be committed to gathering, sharing, and comparing data.

Remember that relationships matter. Friend and family networks often have greater influence than social services. New research is confirming that social good (and bad) often occurs under the influence of social networks. It is important to listen to the families and to learn from them.

Partner with private funders.Boston Rising, a foundation created by a local hedge fund manager, scoured the nation for new ideas. Soon after meeting Maurice Miller, they collaborated with the city to pool other private funders to recruit FII to Boston -- a feat that would have been politically infeasible with tax dollars.

Balance disruption with collaboration. A social innovator can secure funding to start a pilot project, and she might also work successfully over time on the margins. But even with impressive results in hand, she is unlikely to grow her reach or affect system change without engaging existing institutions.

Anticipate skepticism/resistance from incumbents. Changing the game will always create doubt and even distrust, because of real concerns about dilution of efforts or creation of unrealistic expectations, because of disbelief in the theories of change and possibility, and because benefits of the status quo accrue to those who are part of the present system. Be prepared to address this inevitable conflict.

Be flexible and willing to adapt. Social entrepreneurs must sometimes be reminded that their model might not work "as is." They're better off being open to having it tested and shaped through participation by local stakeholders.

We are proud in Boston of our rich tapestry of a social safety net. The city's approach to social problem-solving is holistic and coordinated, informed by data and evaluation, and actively engaged with partners. We want innovation to strengthen what we have and to create community capacity. Our passion is for improving peoples' lives, not maintaining programs. And our belief is that in supporting these social networks we are creating community capacity for sustained change.

But to make the change that we seek, we must find a balance between the protection of needed services and entitlements and the belief that most people have the capacity, the right and the responsibility to help themselves. This can be a tricky path to navigate. But I am sure that your city, like ours, has the passion and the talent to make it work.

This column is based in part on a recent webinar featuring Kurland and Maurice Miller, the founder and CEO of the Family Independence Initiative.

Judith Kurland
Judith Kurland | Contributor