Do Not Teach a Starving Man to Fish – “Give a poor woman a fish, and you’ll feed her for a day.” You teach her how to fish and give her a job that will feed her for a long time.
I think it’s a great idea. People who are more free-market-oriented like the idea of hand-me-ups instead of handouts, and people who are more socialist like the idea of giving the poor more power.
I think Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, is the best person to follow this philosophy. He’s also known as the “father” of microfinance.
His idea that giving poor women in Bangladesh small loans to start or grow small businesses can help them regain their dignity and move out of poverty led to a whole industry of microfinance.
It also inspired me to start Capital Good Fund.
The idea is just so interesting. Assumes that people can improve their own lives if given the chance.
It tells us that the only thing blocking a better society is a small chance, like getting a $200 loan, getting a job interview, or cutting your taxes.
And of course, I agree with the idea that one of the cruelest things about poverty is that it takes away the dignity of the poor.
I believe that Capital Good Fund’s personal loans make a big difference in the lives of our clients.
But the proverb has a big flaw: It only works if there are enough fish in the pond where the poor fish live to feed them.
This can be very dangerous. In the same way, what good is a financial coaching program like Capital Good Fund that helps people build a budget if the main problem is that there aren’t enough affordable homes and jobs?
It’s the belief that the poor are not poor because they don’t know how to manage their money, but because they don’t have enough money.
Remarkably, this is very different from how most social service agencies think about poor people.
Funders and nonprofit leaders, as well as people in the general public, want to think that poverty is a question of irresponsibility or laziness.
This is not true. Consider that a lot of Republicans want to drug test people who get food stamps, and even Democrats, like Bill Clinton, have put work requirements on people who get public benefits (Clinton also effectively ended welfare as we know it).
It doesn’t take into account the fact that food stamp recipients have the same rates of drug use as the general public; middle-class and wealthy families get all kinds of public benefits without facing stigma, and putting work requirements on public benefits doesn’t work if there are no jobs or if the only jobs available don’t pay enough to live on.
People who are poor aren’t more likely to be lazy or make bad decisions than people who aren’t poor. The only difference is that if you have money, you can “afford” to make a mistake.
It would be bad if you went into depression and lost your job. There is a good chance that people who have money can get help for mental health problems, improve, and get back to work.
This doesn’t mean that people who don’t have money will be evicted or go bankrupt. When you are poor and don’t have health insurance, how do you get sick when you are sick?
Now, you could lose everything. This is true for things like getting hit by a car or getting arrested for having a small amount of marijuana. The consequences of the same mistake are very different based on income, race, and gender.
Programs that teach people how to do something that they can’t even use aren’t very important to us. The obvious answer is that these programs let us off the hook for changing the way we live in society.
This reminds me of one of my favorite Marlin Luther King quotes: “Philanthropy is good, but it must not make the philanthropist forget about the economic injustice that makes philanthropy important.”
There are also the words of Jesus: “Suppose a brother or sister doesn’t have clothes or food every day.”
Suppose one of you says to them, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but doesn’t do anything for their physical needs. “What good is it?” It says (James 2:15-16):
It’s not just fish that aren’t evenly distributed; there aren’t enough fishing tools, ponds, bait, education, and places to cook what you catch.
When we say we’re teaching someone how to fish, we’re not paying attention to why they need to be taught how to fish in the first place.
They live in areas with high crime rates, bad schools, and dirty air more often in the United States. In addition, they are more likely to live in apartments that are not safe or healthy and that are also very expensive.
For small crimes, the poor and white are more likely to get away with a warning. And they are more likely to not have easy access to cheap banking services, good health care, and fresh food.
The point of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t expect people to take responsibility for their lives, or that education isn’t important–it is.
But just like with giving, we can’t stop there. It’s hard to believe that this country has so much poverty and injustice, like high death rates, high school dropout rates, and police brutality.
Business as usual isn’t going to make the big changes we need to build a truly just and healthy society.
Even more, there is a lot of evidence that giving people the resources they need is the most cost-effective way to help them be more powerful.
GiveDirectly is a program in Kenya that gives cash to very poor families without any strings attached.
A randomized control trial found that the program had a statistically significant effect on a number of health and economic metrics.
In Latin America, conditional cash transfer programs (where the poor get money based on things like their kids going to school) have also had positive effects on them.
One report by the United Nations found that countries with these programs have lower poverty rates than if they didn’t have them.
They also “have succeeded, even if modestly, in getting more children to school and keeping them there longer.”
It’s also important to note that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) in the United States is one of the best ways to fight poverty in the country.
8.4 million people got out of poverty thanks to SNAP benefits in 2015, according to City Lab. It costs about $7,500 per family to get out of poverty with SNAP benefits. 8.4 million people are alive today.
There is more to being able to do something than just having the right information. Our clients don’t take out payday loans at 278 percent because they don’t know that the interest rate is high.
They do it because they don’t have the ability to take out affordable $300 loans, or because they don’t earn enough to have $300 in savings to pay back the loans.
In the same way, money spent on education won’t do much good for people who don’t make enough money to live on, who don’t have enough safe, affordable housing, or who can’t get to work on time.
Because the government, with its $15 trillion budget, will always have more resources than the nonprofit sector, we are delusional to think that we can solve major societal problems with nongovernmental, free-market principles.
That’s even before we think about whether or not the government should make sure that everyone has the same opportunities and resources to pursue those opportunities (spoiler alert: I believe it does).
As long as we teach people how to fish, we should not stop. But we should keep in mind that poverty is a lot more complicated than just giving people a few fish.
Give a woman a fish, and she’ll have the energy to take care of her kids, do well at work, and pursue her dreams.
Teach her to fish and give her a pond full of fish, and she and her family will be able to eat for life.