12/05/2013 09:00 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

Mr. President, Here's What Your Economy Speech Was Missing

Today, I want to respond to an important address President Obama made this week about what he calls the "defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American." While I agree wholeheartedly with the urgency behind the president's remarks, I would argue that his position on this issue is shortsighted.

As someone who rose from poverty, I understand the determination it takes to get ahead when it feels like the deck is stacked against you. In his remarks about the current state of economic mobility in the United States, President Obama confirmed something we all know -- that today, the American Dream is simply no longer attainable for many Americans. The president laid out a plan to achieve upward mobility, but I'm afraid he left out the most important factor: the people themselves. Those communities of people who are already working hard and demonstrating amazing initiative and ingenuity.

Solutions to income inequality exist at every rung of the income ladder; we see them in communities across the country. We just need to uncover them, and build upon them so that low-income families can see their goals achieved more quickly.

In fact, that's why the war on poverty has failed us -- for 50 years, we've cut ourselves off from an entire approach that can re-start mobility: investing in the initiative of low-income families who are already working hard to get ahead, rather than "programming" the poor.

Unfortunately, there exists a strong stereotype about the nation's poor, that being low-income means being incapable, or in need of "help." As a result, most are not willing to consider and learn from the low-income families who are resourceful and find ways to solve their own problems.

We don't need more roadmaps or safety nets, programs or fixes. We need to listen, observe, and build upon what low-income families are already doing to get ahead. Taking a step back, relying on these families to know what to do, and accelerating their path to mobility -- it's what my organization, the Family Independence Initiative, has been doing with families across the country for 12 years.

We've seen their solutions work, from the Casco-Zavala family in Oakland -- who culled resources and friends to fight back against a predatory lender and achieve their dream of homeownership; to a group of families in New Orleans who started Camp Congo Square, a cultural summer camp for children; to the Hilaire family of Boston, who, through their ingenuity and family connections turned their economic lives around and opened their own business. All of these people had the solutions already; we just believed in them.

The president said that he is open to ideas for erasing income inequality in America. My idea is a simple one: Let's invest directly in solutions generated and led by low-income families themselves. Our future hinges on better understanding and building upon the initiative, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity of low-income people, so that they too have an equal share in the American Dream.