Poverty by the Numbers

  • 1 in 6: The consistent average number of Americans in poverty since 1970.
  • 4 in 5: The number of Americans in poverty who will work their way out in less than three years.
  • 3 in 10: Over 30% of Americans who have worked their way out of poverty will fall back into poverty in less than 3 years.

What You Don’t Know About Poverty

People often talk about the cycle of poverty from generation to generation, but what they don’t talk about is the cycle of poverty that is happening to many American families right now, which typically only lasts for a few months or a few years. According to the last census study, of the 45M households living at or below the federal poverty line, 35M (or a little over 75%) moved above the poverty line within four years. Great news, right?

Well, the problem is 50% of those households slip below the poverty line again within five years. Under the current system, families struggle to build the necessary assets to weather the next crisis, and they aren’t rewarded for their initiative in doing so. Policies actually penalize them for their efforts to save money for such eventualities by cutting off benefits if they manage to create even the smallest financial cushion. The F.I.I. (Family Independence Initiative) is seeking to change this through widespread systems reform and is doing so by partnering with, learning from, and investing in families directly.

While some argue that people living in poverty are just lazy (clearly, this is not the case, as we see a large majority repeatedly finding their way out), others argue for greater support through our welfare system—even though the growing investment in welfare programs over the last 50 years has not moved the needle.

So, what is the solution to this problem? Well, since 2001, F.I.I. has been taking an alternative approach with over 3,000 families who are living in poverty in some of America’s toughest cities, and their data shows that families who partner with FII for 2 years will experience, on average:

  • A 21% increase in monthly income;
  • A 42% decrease in subsidies, such as TANF and SNAP;
  • An increase in monthly savings account balances from $237 to $1,012.

In addition:

  • Many open their first savings accounts;
  • Nearly a third start their own business;
  • The number who say they have friends they can count on triple; and
  • 94% report students have excellent or improved grades and attendance.

No case managers. No case workers. They do all this with less aide and assistance than any other social welfare program. How? It starts with a shift in perspective.

The Alternative

If you were told your local high school had a 50% drop-out rate, what would be your first question? For most of us, it would be: Why are so many students dropping out?

However, Mauricio Miller decided to start asking an alternative question: How do the other 50% make it through?

Miller was a leader in non-profits for years and, for a long time, he used a traditional approach to fighting poverty. Over time, he became discouraged with the lack of results he was seeing and acknowledged that those living in poverty had something to teach us.

He came to understand: Families seeking help from the social sector give up some of their dignity and self-respect in exchange for a free bag of groceries, but it is the loss of dignity and control over your own life that leads to the stress some families are unable to endure.” Accepting help often entails accepting that you aren’t strong enough. As Miller says, “It can undermine their ability to see their own strengths.” 

What Miller realized was that those in poverty were stronger than anyone acknowledged—including themselves—and what they needed was a system that empowered them to build the lives they always wanted.

The Family Independence Initiative

In 2001, Miller founded the Family Independence Initiative in Oakland, and its approach is unlike any other non-profit you have heard of. FII trusts and invests in low-income families across the nation, so they can work individually and collectively to achieve prosperity—and with over 3,000 families in 14 sites, FII has proven their approach works.

One of the most difficult challenges the staff at FII face is one of its most important principles: You need to not be helpful. Why? So that those in poverty can take control of and make choices to improve their lives. In fact, they are so committed to this ideal, they have fired staff members for being helpful!

So, if they don’t strive to be helpful, what do they do? Well, they start by connecting with hardworking families who are typically 200% below the poverty line and ask questions like:

  • What are your dreams and aspirations?
  • How are you going to reach those goals?
  • What’s the best plan for you, your family, and your community?

Instead of giving families solutions, they let them come up with the solutions. Families form collaborations of their own choosing and working together, they form a network of support for each other. The core components of FII’s approach are family choice and control, community building, and direct capital investment. Therefore, FII does not lead these families. FII steps back. FII follows. FII offers families a state-of-the-art technology platform (UpTogether.org), which they use to strengthen networks, access financial capital and incentives, set goals and monitor progress, and support one another in achieving mobility.

Empowering Today’s Athletes

The positive impact of FII is undeniable. In his book about unconventional thinking to common problems, It’s Not About the Shark, author David Niven recounts the story of Tamara, a single mother and FII Family Partner in San Francisco. Tamara went from living in poverty to achieving her goal of becoming a city bus driver to saving and owning her own home in just two years! When Miller was asked about Tamara’s progress, his response was, “I didn’t have the answer for Tamara’s life. She did.”

Not only can we learn an alternative way of thinking about poverty from FII, but we can also learn a great deal about supporting others. In the realm of sports, our desire to see our kids succeed has created an athletics culture of overbearing and hyper-involved coaches and parents.

Organized sports start earlier than ever, with coaches and parents both often demanding a deeper commitment and specialization in the early years. Kids lack the choice of and control over their sport experience that used to exist 25 years ago. Long gone are the days of getting together with their neighborhood friends to play games of basketball, baseball, or tag football without coaches or referees.

As a high-school basketball player, I had no trainer and no year-round team to train with. I had a ball, a good friend, and a 100-degree gym during the summer. With a little support from our parents, and guidance from some coaches during a one-week summer camp, my friend and I—who both shared a dream of playing college basketball—built our off-season workout plan together, and then held each other accountable to that workout every day. This is very different from the experience of the average athlete today, who is being told what to do and held accountable nearly every step of their journey.

Now, the challenge is being okay with our kids or players not getting what they want because they don’t do what is necessary to achieve it. It’s a valuable part of life. We empower them by letting them know we believe in them, equipping them with a few tools, and then giving them the space to take ownership.

Questions > Solutions

Below are 4 questions you can use to empower athletes to take control of their future in sports. Whether you are a parent or a coach, these questions are far more powerful than any lecture you will give. You probably know the lecture I’m talking about: “If you really want to make it, you are going to have to start putting in some real work!”

Questions for Athletes

  • What aspirations and dreams do you have for your sport?
  • What do you need to be good at to achieve those things?
  • What do you need to do to be good at those things”?
  • How can I support you in doing those things?

Family Independence Initiative

Family Independence Initiative, and Mauricio L. Miller, can teach us all a great deal. (I’d encourage you to check out his book, The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty is Wrong.) FII is an organization that is very important to me. In fact, 5% of all the profits from my book, Calling Up, are donated to FII. You can check it out here. For more information about FII, click here and please, consider donating on behalf of FII Family Partners.


1. It’s Not About the Shark by David Niven

2. The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty is Wrong by Maurice L. Miller

3. FII Information 2019

4. FII Strategic Plan

5. https://povertyusa.org/facts