The Alternative

The premiere book by MacArthur Fellow Mauricio L. Miller


Growing up poor, the death of his mother and difficult circumstances of his sister’s life, led Mauricio L. Miller to join a nonprofit and the war on poverty. But just two months into his first social service job he could see flaws in how most poverty programs worked. Later he realized he wouldn’t bring his own family through his programs although they were considered some of the best in the country.

 A chance call from then Mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown, gave Mauricio a chance to start over. His Alternative approach to make poverty escapable, and not just tolerable, is shaped by his mother’s lament that charitable programs “take my pride away” by failing to recognize people’s hard work and talents. 

Although Mauricio’s mother only had a third-grade education in Mexico she was an amazing dress designer and seamstress. “They never ask me about what I’m good at doing. We would be so much better off if they just gave us a fraction of what they spend trying to help us.” With this new opportunity, Mauricio decided to trust the families and use technology to capture the information about their talents and initiative, rather than weaknesses. The alternative challenges the basic assumptions across the political spectrum that low-income families are either lazy or victims needing to be saved. 

His simple solution is to invest in people’s demonstrated strengths, rather than weaknesses. The evidence provided shows that families, when working together with friends creates sustained positive change. Recognizing low-income families as contributors rather than takers from society begins to break the negative stereotypes that divide us and helps to bring our society together. 


Put the Alternative to work in your community

Download this free discussion guide with tips and recommendations for putting the messages and lessons from the Alternative into action within your organization and neighborhood.  



Kat Taylor

Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Beneficial State Bank

“Mauricio Miller’s honest and forceful call for self-determination could not come at a better time. He challenges conventional “fixes” for poverty by urging us to invest directly into people – recognizing their resourcefulness, not their deficits – and look to these very communities for leadership and solutions.  A common sense appeal for trust and respect, both somehow forgotten along the way, this is a timely call-to-action for all of us working to close the wealth gap.”

Clara Miller

President of the Heron Foundation

“In these times, Mauricio Miller’s new book, The Alternative, is not only important reading, it’s imperative.  Miller, a trained engineer, the one-time manager of a top California social service organization and most importantly, the son of a remarkable single mother, has both lived and observed the failings embodied in our attitudes toward the poor and, as a result, the flaws in our systems meant to help people in poverty.  He merges heart and soul with system thinking and network theory to yield up a gift: a prescription featuring the real math, trust relationships and courage that can change the “us and them,” to “upward together” and put American families in the driver’s seat to build their futures.”  

Jeff Edleson,

Dean, School of Social Welfare, University of California at Berkeley

“Mauricio Miller challenges the conventional wisdom that poverty is the result of one’s deficits. Miller and his program, the Family Independence Initiative, recognize the great strengths among people who survive with less and aim to follow their lead in creating the human and financial assets required to succeed and live full lives.  This is truly an alternative approach that puts individuals, families and their communities in charge.”

Shaka Zulu

Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe

“The Alternative just reinforces that all of us have our own ideas about how to build our lives and that we want to do with our friends and family.  It is common sense to do so and the stories in this book, backed by research, reinforces that often programs hide what communities do for themselves, using resources that they have created themselves.   This book is a very good read for those that want to invest and support self-determined people who are doing the work and who are actively involved in shaping their own futures.”

About Mauricio



Learn why Mauricio decided to write the Alternative and what he hopes to achieve with it

Mauricio L. Miller is the author of the Alternative, a book which challenges the basic assumptions across the political spectrum that low-income families are either lazy or victims needing to be saved. He includes evidence that rather than being treated as charity cases they should have access to benefits, as we provide benefits to the rich, for being contributors to society.   In the book, Mauricio lays out and details his simple, evidenced-based alternative solution to poverty—to invest in people’s demonstrated strengths, rather than weaknesses.

Mauricio founded Family Independence Initiative (FII) in 2001, with a mission to support and accelerate low-income families’ own efforts to improve their social and economic mobility. A first-generation immigrant, Mauricio’s personal history deeply informs his life’s work. He was inspired to develop FII after researching the histories of communities in the United States who managed to rise from intense poverty to middle-class standing. In his research, he found something simple, yet extraordinary: Pathways to success require a group effort. Individuals and families turned to extended family and friends for support and resources, and followed the example of the successful families around them.

In recognition of his unconventional approach to generating economic mobility among low-income families, Mauricio was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2012. He was appointed by President Obama to the White House Council for Community Solutions, is an Ashoka Fellow, a Purpose Prize winner and was honored with an invitation to President Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union address. Prior to founding FII, Mauricio spent 22 years as the Director of Asian Neighborhood Design, a community development agency in San Francisco and Oakland.


Invite Mauricio to speak

Mauricio enjoys finding time to speak with and listen to those supporting people in their drive for social and economic mobility.

Share your Alternative with Mauricio

If you have been part of an innovative approach to addressing poverty in America or around the globe, Mauricio would like to hear your story.


Media Inquiries

For any other media inquiries email us at: carrie@mission.partners