OAKLAND -- Maurice Lim Miller, a Bay Area native and longtime advocate for the poor, was one of 23 people awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" on Monday.

The $500,000 award is given annually to people in the sciences, arts, humanities and other disciplines in order to allow them to pursue long-term projects of their choosing. Recipients may spend the money -- $100,000 per year for five years -- as they see fit.

Among this year's other winners were mandolin player and composer Chris Thile; Northwestern University historian Dylan C. Penningroth, whose work focuses on the pre-Civil War South; and the Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

Miller's work focuses on empowering the poor to make better choices about their own lives using an innovative system involving friends and family members. Participants get together once a month to track each other's progress across a very basic set of metrics, such as securing and maintaining employment, improving their children's grades and saving money. Successes are rewarded with small cash payments, and members make their own decisions without the interference of case workers or counselors. To the extent that outsiders participate, it is only to ask pointed questions and encourage independent thought.

The program, called Family Independence Initiative, got its start with 25 families in Oakland in 2001 and in the decade since has expanded to include more than 700 families in six cities. First lady Michelle Obama has hailed the program, and former President Bill Clinton praised Miller's efforts in speeches.

Miller said his approach is neither liberal nor conservative, and has adopted tenets from both political persuasions to make his case.

"Our work falls between the arguments that are being had between the right and the left," Miller told the Associated Press. "The argument that people don't take personal responsibility is wrong. But the argument that they should take personal responsibility is right."

In a blog item written for the Huffington Post in May, Miller extolled his Mexican mother's outstanding work ethic, saying welfare systems that stripped people of their dignity and turned them into victims were especially toxic for the nation's poor.

"My mother taught me that do-gooders can do as much harm as name-callers to the pride and sense of self-efficacy of low-income people," wrote Miller in the post, entitled, "When Helping Doesn't Help."

Like the other award recipients, Miller received a phone call Monday alerting him to the prize.