Moving America Forward

These Programs for the Poor Preserve Dignity and Demand Accountability — and They’re Working

April 25, 2014
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These Programs for the Poor Preserve Dignity and Demand Accountability — and They’re Working
People wait in line to enter the Bridges to Health medical and dental clinic on April 23, 2014 in San Francisco, California. The clinic offered low income patients free health check ups. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Like Yelp, but for social services.

Programs to help the poor are often top-down initiatives, created and implemented by more fortunate people. But there’s a movement building across the country to empower the low-income people these programs benefit by letting them choose the specific help they need, welcoming their feedback about the effectiveness of the programs that serve them, and holding them accountable for improving their lives.

2012 MacArthur Fellow Maurice Lim Miller founded Family Independence Initiative in 2001 to study how best to help low-income families break out of poverty. FII’s “Opportunity Platform” issued San Francisco families laptops, instructed them to set goals for themselves, and invited them to track their own progress, which resulted in a 23% increase in income and a 24% increase in savings. Now Lim Miller is developing a computer platform through which low-income families can rate and offer feedback about programs and services they’ve used, like Yelp for social services.

Low-income people are rarely asked for their input on how services are working, as they are seen as recipients rather than consumers. But Lim Miller thinks using techniques from political polling and marketing studies can make services helping poor people more efficient and effective so they ultimately lift people out of poverty. The feedback users provide will help nonprofits and government programs determine how to improve, and allow foundations decide which programs are best to fund.

Erika Flint, who grew up poor as the daughter of a single mother, is another reformer whose work at Watertown Urban Mission in New York goes along with this dignity-driven approach to helping the poor. It’s run by a consortium of churches, who pool resources to help the poor with a variety of needs. They don’t give out checks or food vouchers—instead representatives from Watertown Urban Mission meet with families individually and give them the specific things they need to solve their problems—such as diapers or counseling, while setting up a plan to achieve self-sufficiency. For example, the Mission buys used cars and sells them to low-income parents at a steep discount, for $600, payble in monthly installments of $50. “We could just give the cars away,” Flint told Nicole Caldwell of Truth Atlas. “But instead, we enable people to buy their own.”

Flint said the idea behind everything the Mission does is to support people as they help themselves, “in order to maintain a sense of pride.” And with pride intact, the people they serve just might lift themselves out of poverty.

MORE: Are Cars the Key to Single Mothers Achieving Self-Sufficiency?

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