Successive Approximations

Maurico Miller on Econtalk

Maurico Miller on Econtalk

On a recent episode of Econtalk, the host interviewed Maurico Miller, who wrote a book called The Alternative: Most of What You Believe about Poverty Is Wrong.... based on his years of running social assistance programs. But what he learned is unique because his programs didn't directly help people. The programs were entirely focused around building a community that would keep each other accountable and help each other out. It was not about handouts or means-testing people. There was no idea of building an efficiently-humming bureaucracy to administer this apparatus.

Instead, they discovered that it was very effective to create small groups within a community that would harness the ability for families to work with each other, inspire each other, and help each other out. One story he tells on the podcast is:

And so, all the other 5 families, I believe, that were part of that group, their savings, the red line for savings, started going up. Before, remember, they were sending all their savings back to El Salvador.

So, I went to a meeting and said, 'How come you guys are all saving?' They said, 'Well,' and they looked at Javier and Maria and said, 'if they can buy a house, we can buy a house.' It was clear that Javier and Maria were positive deviants--what are called 'positive deviants--which we have to talk at some point, because that's really important. They deviated from the norm, and they were successful. And so they became a role model that then was tested by the other families.

Within 18 months of the red lines going up, every other Salvadorian refugee family owned a house in the United States.

There is a power here when you are integrated into a social community where seeing those around you succeed pushes you to strive further.

In the old days, it would be around the grill at a cookout, or in the kitchen during someone's birthday party. But instead, today Facebook is a 24/7 highlight reel of all the successes that everyone else is having. And each one triggers a pang of "I need to work harder to keep up with them!" and that's one of the things that makes Facebook so addictive. We feel like we can't look away.

But when you scale it up from a dozen friends to two hundred, it becomes too much to keep up with. And if don't guard ourselves, this motivation from comparison is triggering so often that it just saps our will to do anything. It'll never be good enough, so why try?

But on a small scale, that urge is so powerful. And they tapped into it. And then from there the build people up to be leaders in the community:

And then, once you see a positive deviation, what our data system does, is we basically say, 'Javier and Maria bought a house. If you want to buy a house, go talk to them. Don't talk to my staff. My staff wasn't the one that bought the house. Go talk to Javier and Maria.'

And we tell Javier and Maria, so, 'You are now being the expert. So, now, can people go to you and ask you for advice?'

And I can tell you: Almost anybody who is low-income, to be told that they are an expert in something and be the adviser and the counselor, they'd love it. So, of course they want to help each other

Another story that he tells is that he had to make good on a threat to fire a research assistant if he was actually assisting the families instead of just gathering the data on them. One time he had to do that an the families he was helping got together and protested, and he handled it by saying:

The other piece is that, 'My liaison there is actually costing me a lot of money. And that, if, instead, I would give my money to you guys, that you could help each other to put together an email address or whatever.'

And, they're, over there, 'Well, you mean, we could get that money that you're paying him?'

And, I said, 'Well, yes. That was the original intent with Jerry Brown, is that we're going to pay you for doing the work that normally social workers do whatever they do.'

And so, once they got a sense that actually they could earn it, then you could see the protest kind of shifting.

Then this woman in the back stands up and she says, 'But, I've never done an email. How am I supposed to do it?'

And that's when a 17-year-old or something like that stood up in the front. She turned around to that woman and says, 'I'll help you. I'll help all of you.' And at that point, the entire protest died.

The whole thing is worth a listen. They also have a transcript here which I've used for the quotes.

Maybe it just confirms my priors, but the fact that such social programs, focused on building communities that become self-sustaining and self-propagating instead of increasingly dependent, is very encouraging.

Ben Berry

I don't have comments on my posts, but if you want to reach me, email me at my first name at