“THE ALTERNATIVE” by Mauricio Miller

 Book Review by George Johnson, Rose City Presbyterian Church Do you ask why poverty is still prominent for the past several decades?  Not enough money or is the plan seriously flawed?  What can/should be done today?  The book “The Alternative” as the title suggests, proposes a new approach to eliminating poverty.  According to the author most of what we, the well-intended, know about poverty is wrong. Social programs should invest in the strengths of the poor and not be simply charities.

The author, Mauricio Miller, entered US as a young boy with his mother and sister as an emigrant from Mexico.  His mother wanted an education and better life for her children.  His life in poverty and the sacrifices his single mother made for her family make for thoughtful reading. His family, as with others in in poverty, lived in a social network of community interactions.  Learning to be resourceful and working together they survived.  He learned that it does not take talent to live with resources, but living in poverty --- every day presents a new learning experience in survival. The prevailing thought by many in social work is that people in poverty make poor decisions, thus, continuing poverty.  Miller takes serious issue with that concept - they know what is best for them, but have insufficient resources or opportunities to live out their dreams.  They feel obligated to follow the social workers instructions or suggestions rather than follow their own solutions.

He entered University of California, Berkeley, as an engineering student.  Living and interacting with students from the elite, money class was an enlightening experience opening a new understanding of life that he never knew existed.  He hoped to graduate and get a job.  Affluent classmates considered those basic components of life expected entitlements, primarily through family connections.  He did graduate, get a job, and was drafted to serve in Vietnam.

Mauricio Miller was not satisfied with life and distraught after the suicide of his mother.  She was unable to maintain the stresses and abuses as a single mother and felt unsuccessful in giving her children what she wanted for them.  (Reader can learn about his sister who did not follow his path.) He wanted to be more involved with people and helping the under privileged. After a few years he headed a social service NGO.  It was “successful” with nationwide recognition.  He was invited by President Clinton to the 1999 State of the Union address.

But he was not satisfied.  He felt hypocritical and that advancements of his clients were minimal; thus the program was not justified.  He calculated that clients would be better off if he gave them directly the money he received for the projects.  What to do?  At that time, by serendipity (or God’s providence), Governor Jerry Brown contacted him and asked what California could propose to a national poverty grant announcement.  His thoughts went back to his mother.  She was extremely resourceful and also talented as a seamstress.  What could she have accomplished if she had access to even small financial resources?  She and other immigrants were extremely resourceful, relied on each other, and shared what they had.  Would not these basic concepts be the basis for a new approach?  Would not learning what they need to survive be valuable - a bottom up rather than a top down approach - in social service?  Would not those in poverty know better about living in poverty than those with post-graduate degrees from prestigious universities?  Governor Brown was impressed, took his advice, and was awarded the grant.

The last portion of the book describes development and principles of his “alternative” approach.  It grew into what is called today the “Family Independence Initiative” (FII).  It began in Oakland, and has expanded into several cities (https://www.fii.org/   https://www.uptogether.org/) including Portland by partnering with the Multnomah Idea Lab (https://multco.us/dchs/mil).  The basic principle is that clients are in charge. They are paid to work together and develop their own plans, and in doing so they “educate’ the social workers. Program resources go to clients with much less to social workers. The purpose of this review is not to explain in detail or defend the FII.  Readers are encouraged to access the internet sites to learn and understand.

All who are troubled by poverty and want to alleviate this injustice in our society should read this book.  Mauricio Miller describes the flaws in our social service network and how the strengths of the poor, not the weaknesses, should be emphasized. Importantly, the book provides the reader insight of how those around us in poverty view themselves.  What is the future for social programs?  What initiatives should we support, advocate and participate in?  What can we learn from the past?