Empowering the poor to help themselves

Family Independence Initiative, founded by Maurice Miller, requires families to form support groups in order to rise out of poverty.
CBS News

(CBS News) BOSTON - The word "genius" gets thrown around pretty casually, but the MacArthur Foundation takes it very seriously. On Tuesday, it announced 23 winners of this year's "genius grant." The winners get half a million dollars. But there's no way to put a price on what they give. We met one of the honorees who is helping the poor find their own way out of poverty.

"She didn't like welfare," said Maurice Miller said of his single mother. "Even the people that wanted to be helpful, she found it patronizing."

Miller vividly recalls how his mother struggled with being on government assistance.

"The social worker kept asking her, 'So what do you need, what's the problems in your life?'" My mother came home and said, 'But she never asked me what I was good at, what I wanted, what I could really accomplish.'"

Video: MacArthur "genius grant" recipients talk creativity
MacArthur Foundation announces winners of 2012 "genius grants"
Steve Martin congratulates fellow picker Chris Thile on "genius grant"

After his mother died, he spent the next 20 years working for an anti-poverty non-profit. But in 2001, he decided to take a different approach. Using private donations, he founded the Family Independence Initiative. Miller gives members only one directive: "Do something. Do something to get yourselves out of poverty, because we're going to be learning from you."

The initiative requires 6-8 poor families to form a support group. They must work together to find solutions to everything from child care to increasing savings to getting better jobs. Miller's staff is not allowed to help at all.

The group can earn up to $160 a month just for keeping accurate records of their successes and failures. Other cash incentives are given as they increase personal savings.

Francia Peguero, 34, decided to try the Family Independence Initiative two years ago. The mother of three from Boston was on welfare and food stamps but had big dreams.Recently, she purchased a home. CBS News

"I knew that getting together with this group of people would help me," said Francia Peguero, 34. She decided to try the program two years ago. The mother of three from Boston was on welfare and food stamps but had big dreams.

"The biggest one was to buy a house for my kids," she said.

Peguero got a steady job. With encouragement from her group, she focused on fixing her credit and saving every penny she could. Recently, she purchased that home.

Asked if she thought she would have a house without the group, Peguero answered, "I would have a house, but it wouldn't have the same meaning."

And why not? "All the support I got from these people," she said, crying.

Miller said: "These people feel like, 'I'm getting control over their life. I have a community around me, I'm not going to to fail, my kids are going to see that, and I have a future.'"

In Boston alone, 35 families in the program have increased their income 25 percent since 2010.

"I think she would be very happy," said Miller on what his late mother would say about what he's doing right now.

Happy that he is showing the world that poor does not mean powerless.

  • Elaine Quijano
    Elaine Quijano

    Elaine Quijano was named a CBS News correspondent in January 2010. Quijano reports for "CBS This Morning" and the "CBS Evening News," and contributes across all CBS News platforms. She is based in New York.