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"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.'"
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.
"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."
Why is our Social Services not doing the same things? For roughly the price of food stamps alone, a dozen or so families in roughly the same neighborhoods can be matched up and doing the same thing--and they could earn the same rewards from the safety net as from the non-profit group. WHY ARE WE NOT DOING THIS? Because the system is set up to encourage perpetual poverty...like a casino. Ever go INTO a casino, but have trouble finding the exit? Next thing you know, you're trapped into gambling everything you have until you're THROWN out...same with social safety net programs--you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. They don't want you to leave--they want you to come to accept and respect central authority and the Democratic credo, and pay homage at voting time.
Getting out of the system means getting into a new one with YOU at the helm. For some, the thought is just too scary. For all, that's where freedom truly begins.