Initiative Helps Families Create Solutions Through Peer Support, Data

Started eleven years ago by a social entrepreneur in California, the is looking to expand in the Boston area but can't do so fast enough to keep up with demand, the reports.

Founded on the belief that the poor have the resourcefulness to address their own problems, the program, which is funded mainly by the and foundations, , and the , recruits families and pays them a monthly stipend to identify their aspirations, record data in six categories to track their progress, and attend regular group meetings with other families working toward similar goals.

In Boston, members of the first groups formed two years ago have boosted their personal savings by 264 percent on average; increased their monthly incomes by 25 percent, not counting FII payments; and improved their children's grades by 25 percent. Participants in the program also have started businesses, purchased homes, enrolled in college, opened microloan programs, and obtained care for sick children, among other things.

FII founder Maurice Lim Miller had been running social services in Oakland and San Francisco for more than twenty years, struggling to lift families out of poverty, when he realized that his clients should be able to do what immigrant families in previous generations had managed to do: figure out ways to succeed and lead the way for others in their communities. In the original Bay Area program, Lim Miller offered families $160 a month to attend regular meetings and record — on a donated computer — their progress, including their incomes, debts, children's grades, and other information, which he audited for accuracy. If a family saved money for housing, business, or education, FII matched the amount two-to-one, up to $1,000 a year.

To give participants full autonomy to make their own successes and mistakes, FII staff also refrained from offering direction or counseling. Lim Miller forbade an Oakland staffer to intervene on behalf of a client who was signing a mortgage with a predatory lender. Other members of the group helped fix up the house so the family could refinance on better terms. Then they bought homes as well. "Friends started picking up the pattern, just like the Irish and Polish had done," Lim Miller told the Globe, noting that FII merely provided a small incentive and the families did the rest.

"The more families take initiative, the more they watch out for each other, the more they share successes, the less they need us," said Jesús Gerena, director of the program in Boston. "We come and go, but they thrive."

Yvonne Abraham. "." Boston Globe 08/26/2012.