For the past ten years, I have been watching closely as the gap between the rich and the poor in America has continued to widen, and as our once strong middle class has become further fractured. So many Americans teeter on the edge of poverty, and many families are entering poverty for the first time, after falling from the security of the middle class.
According to a study by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trust, many people make more money than their parents did, but they are not better off socially or economically. One-third of American households, constituting 100 million people, earn under $35,000 a year. For those in the lowest income levels, economic mobility has been lost, and generation after generation stays tied to the same economic class.
This "stickiness" of class calls into question our deepest democratic values that hold that if you work hard, you can do well. But the "solution" for those in the lowest income communities isn’t about working hard–they already do. It’s about working together.
Through my work with the Family Independence Initiative, I know that families have a remarkable ability to support one another in their rise from poverty. We’ve seen this through our country’s history, and if we want to truly re-establish economic mobility then we need to go back to our roots, when we depended on families and believed in their collective ability to create something out of nothing.
Take, for example, the townships built by African-Americans before and after slavery. Together they bought land, pooled resources, started and supported each other’s businesses and therefore strengthened their community as a whole. We’ve seen similar examples in so many other communities like the Irish, Italians, Chinese, Mexicans, and Cambodians.
Yet, our understanding of the power of families working together has diminished over time as we’ve become primarily focused on individual successes vs. the power of mutuality. And we’ve shifted from believing that working poor people are hard-working and capable to assuming that their lack of success is because they are lazy or helpless. We’ve seemingly written off 100 million indigent people as incompetent and incapable of offering constructive solutions for their own plight, and that someone else (policymakers, government, philanthropists, etc.) must do so on their behalf.
A one-size-fits-all strategy to end poverty isn’t the answer, just as it isn’t the answer for other economic groups in America. Every family has its own solutions and requires access to a variety of flexible resources to realize their self-determined path.
America has gone to great lengths to make resources available for middle class and wealthy people to grow and maintain their wealth--low-interest loans, tax credits on assets like mortgage interest deductions, and matches to retirement savings. But the same hasn’t been true of America’s lowest class. There's no reason we can't create resources for low-income folks so they can leverage their capacity and move themselves forward. American families can indeed pull themselves up, so long as they work together and the flexibility is there to make it happen.
We are underestimating the capacity, wisdom, and talent of those in poverty to participate in their own advancement to our own detriment. Imagine if that capacity and resourcefulness was really recognized? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we assumed that people would work together to lead their own change?
The Family Independence Initiative has been testing that approach for more than a decade, and the perception that low-income families are simply lazy or helpless is simply not based in fact. Take Sinita, Bertha, and Jobana who live in San Francisco with their husbands and have 12 kids among their three families. Their child care options are limited, given the cost, and earning extra income is a challenge. A few months after joining FII, the three friends launched a business. Through their community, they have found clients with homes and small offices that need cleaning. While two of the moms clean, the third cares for the kids. And they split the profits.
There are Sinitas, Berthas, and Jobanas all over America, and what holds them together is the power to create their own path to economic mobility by tapping into their creativity and their desire to create a better future for their families. Not a silver bullet program or resource, but a flexibility to chart their own course.
By working together, people can do a tremendous amount to move themselves forward. If we want to help low-income communities and re-build a thriving middle class we need to invest resources in the initiative that people are taking to move themselves forward.
The challenges faced by families in poverty are great. But if we can approach the conversation on economic mobility through a new lens—that all families, regardless of income level, need access to flexible resources to chart their own upward mobility–then I believe we will create lasting change.