Jorge and Maria Elena dreamed of one day owning a home. As refugees of war now living in America, they had committed a large portion of their income to supporting family who remained in El Salvador. With little money to save, they assumed that finding the means to purchase a home was something that would take at least a decade to accomplish. Then the unimaginable happened. Jorge and Maria Elena found a broker and with the help of friends and family were able to raise enough money for a down payment.
But as fairytale as it all seemed, their dream soon became a nightmare. The broker they hired turned out to be a predatory lender and their mortgage payments quickly became 65 percent of their income. Jorge and Marie Elena faced foreclosure and embarrassment in their community. Then, with the odds quickly stacking up against them, the family formed a plan. Mustering the support of friends, family, and their community they renovated the home, and increased its value- all of which meant that they were able to renegotiate their mortgage, lower their payments to a manageable level, and keep their dream of home ownership alive.
Jorge and Maria Elena's story of success might have gone unnoticed without the help of Family Independence Initiative (FII), an organization that works in communities across the country to disprove negative stereotypes about poor people and advocate for policy and funding changes that promote personal initiative and peer-to-peer support. Because of their participation in FII, Jorge and Maria Elena's story was documented and used as an example for program participants and for policymakers on how low-income families and communities can improve their own lives.
Altering Society's Expectations
Founded in 2001 by Maurice Lim Miller, FII is based on the idea that we can reduce poverty as a country by shifting the responsibility and resources for change to the very families most antipoverty programs target. Its approach is composed of three components:
- Direct engagement and support to low-income families;
- Data collection and tracking used for research and learning; and
- Policy analysis and recommendations.
Through its direct engagement component, FII ask families to organize themselves with their friends into groups that support individual and communal plans for overcoming poverty. Participants in the program are provided with a computer, and are required to make monthly reports on personal and economic data. They can also choose to complete activities—like making deposits to a savings account or enrolling in a health plan—that carry a small monetary payment for reporting ($30 per activity completed) intended to acknowledge concrete progress and reward initiative. Representatives from FII document the families' stories and experiences and respond to families’ requests for resources, but do not lead or direct the families.
Information collected from participants is compiled into an indicator-based tracking system that measures progress in key areas like education, finances and employment, and health. This data is used in two ways. It is made available to families in the program, helping outline paths to overcome poverty, and it also informs FII's work to improve policies aimed at low-income communities. FII has also initiated programs like a five star rating system designed to function as a feedback loop for families in the program to report on the effectiveness of social services they utilize.
Through its multi-faceted approach, FII functions on a broader level as a social laboratory—testing approaches intended to alter society's expectations and crafting policy and practice recommendations that support people's self-determination and initiative.
Expanding with Plans for the Future
FII began implementing its direct service program in Oakland in 2001, originally working with 25 families. Divided into four groups—two African-American groups, one group of refugees from El Salvador, and the fourth group of Lu Mien refugees from Laos—these families set out to pursue higher education and homeownership, improve their credit, reduce their debt, build their communities, and preserve their culture.
The Oakland pilot program was extremely successful, with average income increasing 27 percent and average savings rates growing 144 percent within two years. In addition, from those original 25 families came nine new homeowners, and 22 new businesses.
Based on this success, FII began to expand to Oahu (2004), San Francisco (2007), and Boston (2010). These locations have seen similar average increases in income and have shown savings increases of up to 377 percent (Oahu). Today FII assists nearly 800 individuals a year, and the data collected by the program has been used to help reform public services.
Moving forward, FII plans to increase the number of participants across three diverse cities, reaching 3,000+ lives across all of its sites by 2015.