Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Framing Project Coach with Regard to Mauricio Miller’s New Book: The Alternative: Most of What You Believe about Poverty is Wrong

Don Siegel

In a new book entitled The Alternative: Most of What You Believe about Poverty is Wrong, Mauricio Miller makes the case that social programs designed to help poor people are misguided, and, often, adverse to those being supported. The gist of his main thesis is that: Our helping system for the poor is based on charity, on well-meaning outsiders saving the poor. But the stories, data, and research presented … shows that charity slows progress. He further asserts that after thirty years of a war on poverty the social service sector’s primary accomplishment was to make living in poverty more tolerable for some. As Miller sees it, poor people are just as able as rich people to make decisions about how to improve their lives, and that the only thing that they lack are resources. Throughout the book, Miller argues that if the billions of dollars allocated by government and private sources were given directly to poor people to do the sorts of things that they envision would help their situations, rather than to agencies run by elites who think that they know what is best for those folks, we would be a lot further along in the war on poverty.

Miller has some very credible bona fides. He grew-up as a child of a poor single immigrant mother. Along the way, he observed her struggles, how hard she worked to make ends meet, marveled at her intellect, and was amazed by her creativity. Despite having so many assets, Miller saw his mother’s efforts go relatively unrewarded because of one lacking element; money. As he contends, having more money would have allowed her to leverage latent talents, and to use her entrepreneurial skills to start a business which, in turn, would have made the life of his family much better. Yet, despite being a poor kid, Miller, with her support, succeeds in school and, somehow, goes on to and graduates from the University of California at Berkeley. He then pursues a career as a leader of social service organizations designed to help poor people, wins a MacArthur Award, and is, ultimately, invited as an honored guest to a state of the Union address. Despite all the recognition that he receives, after a twenty-year career in social services, Miller suffers from what might be called a case of imposter syndrome. His epiphany is that while his motives were always pure, his impact on redressing poverty, which were conventional, was a lot less than what others perceived them to be.

Nine months after being honored at the state of the union address, Miller received a call from California Governor Jerry Brown who challenged him to come up with something different, something that might be thought of as a disruptive strategy for fighting poverty.  After much thought, he crafts a program called Family Independence Initiative  (FII). The gist of this approach entailed honoring his mother’s plight by trusting low income families to find their own solutions for dealing with poverty. As he saw it, the challenge was to eliminate the middle man, and to connect poor people directly with the information and resources that they needed to make real change a reality. While Miller recognized the good work done by social service agencies, he contends that in the many years we, as a society, have attempted to fight poverty, all that such organizations have really done is to make living in poverty more tolerable. He reinforces this point in quoting his mother and sister who stated: If they just gave me a fraction of what they spend trying to help me, we would be so much better off. In Miller’s view, poor people are not lazy or freeloaders waiting for handouts, but creative, innovative, determined, and resourceful.

In thinking about youth development, Miller conveys: To get funding for my youth programs I had to imply that parents were disengaged, uncaring, or incapable. He goes on to write that: he had to convince the donors or foundations that my staff — my programs — are what led to the change in our clients’ lives. We implied or even claimed that without us, without the services we imposed, the parents or guardians could not make progress or make the right decisions. Yet, as Miller conveys, this is clearly a deficit view of low income families upon which social service agencies stake their reason for being, and which creates dependency in persons who are perfectly capable of determining their own futures. He describes a vicious cycle that exists between funders and social service agencies: Foundations and donors want to help those in need so the nonprofits and government agencies provide data depicting the families as needy. That in turn reinforces the funder’s impression that the families cannot change without institutional help, so they continue to fund based on the extent of neediness, thus forcing agencies to generate data on more problems with the community and so on. It really has become a self - perpetuating race to the bottom. 

Given Miller’s perspective, where does a program like Project Coach stand with regard to promoting upward mobility in underserved youth? On face value, it may resemble the type of organization that he views as siphoning off resources that could go directly to low-income families. It could also be perceived as ascribing to the deficit model that assumes that outsiders know more about what a community needs than those who live there. In short, is Project Coach just another well-intentioned social service organization that is guilty of poverty pimping?

In pondering this question, I think that the answer is a bit more complicated than Miller’s perspective portrays. Things are not always as clear as programs being organized top-down, as characterized in the social services sector, or, as emerging bottom-up, from community initiatives. Sure, it is true that Project Coach was started by outsiders who were searching for a strategy to help underserved youth living in a poor community improve their lives, but, it is also true that in developing and operating Project Coach many people, representing an array of interests and perspectives, are involved. Although, program directors are employees of Smith College, all part-time staff are teachers and residents of the Springfield community. Most importantly, youth play a critical role in providing adults with their perspectives about various issues, and demonstrate leadership as they add their voices and assist in making decisions about such things as who to recruit as coaches, which graduate student mentors to accept, and even weigh-in on the hiring of program directors. They also help craft and make decisions about how to coach the activities that they oversee. Parents of coaches and players also meet regularly with program staff and teen coaches to provide their insights about Project Coach, and offer suggestions about what they wish to see happening in the future. Additionally, teachers and principals play important roles in how Project Coach is conceived and operationalized. The distinction made by Miller of top-down or down-top organization and decision making is blurred in Project Coach, as it clearly is a collaborative initiative.

In contrast to Miller’s observation about social service organizations siphoning-off funds that might go directly to poor families who know how to use such funds better than well intentioned outsiders who have grandiose ideas about fighting poverty, a counter case can be made that limited dollars can also be used to maximize their effect, if used wisely, and with the backing of those who are the targeted beneficiaries. This has been a consistent theme for Project Coach in that it may have started as an idea in the ivy-covered halls of academia, but quickly morphed into something embraced and embellished by the community in which it resides. School administrators and a prominent youth sports leader urged us to get teens and younger children engaged and active on the fields and gymnasiums in their community which were underutilized, especially during the after-school hours. Along the way, teachers and parents emerged to support what we were doing and to urge us to expand opportunities to more kids in their community. Project Coach, at first, had a very modest program with 10 – 15 teen coaches, and 30 – 50 -- 3rd - 5th grade players that offered one coach training session, and two-1 hour sports sessions each week. After several years, community leaders approached Project Coach, and wanted us to expand the number of coaches, players, and contact hours that it had with kids. They also asked us to include teachers in the mix so that they and their students could strengthen relationships, heretofore, only built on being in the classroom doing academic activities. With this request came an offer to support such growth with community development funds. Today we have 50 or so teen coaches and 150 -- 3rd – 5th graders who participate in academic enrichment and sports several days a week. Given that large waiting lists exist for participating as teen coaches, and as grade school players, youth and their families seemingly perceive value in Project Coach.  

While Mauricio Miller makes a compelling case for rethinking how to craft antipoverty programs, I contend that his central argument needs some tweaking. As this blog conveys, there are not only two alternatives to helping poor people living in stressed communities: Top-Down or Bottom-Up. There are also hybrid approaches in which outsiders may initiate a program, and as it develops, others join in and morph it into something that is more penetrating and meaningful to those being served. Others can be community leaders, funders, teachers, parents, and, and even the youth for whom the program is designed. Each group plays an important part in tweaking, running, and sustaining the entity. Ultimately, the best data to support its value to those being served is demand. When demand grows over time, the entity is most likely providing something that people want. Clearly, Miller provides very valuable insights about fighting poverty, and how social service organization may be more of a liability than an asset. Yet, our experience with Project Coach shows that the lines are often blurred regarding collaborative efforts that may start out one way, and subsequently metamorphise into something that communities embrace as their own.