Discovering Positive Deviants
By Amy Willis
What’s wrong with what we believe about poverty? What are some of the mistakes we make when we think about it? Social entrepreneur and guest on this week’s EconTalk episode Mauricio Miller has a time-tested answer to these questions. Miller, the founder of the Family Independence Initiative, argues that everything we think we know about poverty is wrong. We too often defer to a stereotype, argues Miller, such as believing that poor people are themselves at fault for their situation. These stereotypes in turn tend to influence proposed solutions to poverty.
Miller’s organization has been making a profound impact on the lives of the poor, emphasizing the role of agency and personal responsibility in lifting people our of poverty. Miller aspires to attach both notions of the poor as lazy and as victims. By emphasizing the resourcefulness that’s required for survival, starting with the story of his own immigrant mother, Miller paints a very compelling picture.
1- Roberts reminds listeners that there is often a good deal of mobility in and out of poverty; it is not a permanent class for many. Miller agrees that people aren’t ‘stuck’ generationally, but that most poverty reduction schemes are still missing the correct focus. What is the correct focus, according to Miller?
2- What does Miller mean when he says, in America “we make poverty tolerable?” Who are the “positive deviants” (like Javier and Maria) Miller alludes to, and what role do they play in FII’s initiatives? How do such deviants instead make poverty escapeable? What do participants really get out of the program that is transformative, in Roberts’s words?
3- Why did Miller threaten to fire staff members who actually tried to help their clients? Why would his staff lie about their efforts to help??? How does the story of the clients’ protest of Miller’s first firing illustrate FII’s overall approach?
4- Roberts, no fan of top-down solutions to anything himself, admits he still finds Miller’s approach “a little bit rose-colored” and challenges Miller to tell him he’s wrong. Do you think Miller succeeded? Explain.
5- What role does technology play in Miller’s efforts? What does he mean when he says, “technology, I think, is our biggest contributor to the family.” To what extent do you agree with him?
Bonus question: Imagine you are Will MacAskill. Would you invest in the Family Independence Initiative? Is this an opportunity for “effective altruism?” (Hint: You’ll want to [re]visit this 2015 EconTalk episode for help with this question.) What reasons would you provide for your decision?