Veteran antipoverty activist Maurice Lim Miller had never met Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. So when Miller’s home phone rang late one night in 2000, he was surprised to find one of America’s best-known municipal leaders on the line.

Brown was fuming. Oakland’s programs to help its poor become more economically self-sufficient weren’t working. A recent city department request for $10 million looked to him like “poverty pimping,” creating 125 jobs for City Hall bureaucrats but barely benefiting the...


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